Limit Government, Not Consumer Choices

By Erin Mae Shiffler

We live in a country founded on freedom and limited government. We choose where we live, what we do for a living, and what products we buy. If we aren’t satisfied with our decisions, we choose differently next time. Consumer choices are an important market signal that directs the allocation of resources more efficiently in our economy. It is not the proper role of government to micromanage those choices in order to enforce a “politically correct” lifestyle on everyone else.

The plastic bag ban that took effect eight months ago is just one recent example of how Portland imposes its “green” ideology on everyone who does business here. If enough people thought refraining from using plastic shopping bags would protect the environment, and valued the importance of that, they would choose not to use plastic bags. Plastic bags are a reusable product I get when I buy something else. But I no longer get the choice of canvas, paper, or plastic. Instead of reusing my plastic bags, I have to buy other plastic bags to take out my garbage. Where is the net environmental benefit in that?

Our choices are our personal liberty in action. If we want to preserve our freedom in the most important areas of our lives, we need to stop government from encroaching even on what may appear to be the most trivial of things.

Erin Shiffler is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center.

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  • 3H

    What happens when the costs of those decisions are hidden from the consumer or the costs to the environment, for instance, are not included in the product? I don’t think consumer choice should necessarily trump other issues.

    • ShaneYoung

      I’m not sure exactly how the [potential] costs in this situation are “hidden”. We have so many resources today that document the alleged negative effects of plastic bags (or, in many cases, the alleged negative effects of particular actions done with plastic bags). Does the suggestion that individuals should be responsible for deciding whether or not to pursue this information, and to what extent it should be taken seriously in their own lives, mean that the information is “hidden”?

      Those wishing to limit the use of plastic bags, for whatever reason, should embrace consumer choice and market their ideas to individuals, in hopes of changing lifestyles, as opposed to the government, in hopes of banning plastic bags in a select number of stores that make X number in profits.

      • 3H

        I’m looking beyond the plastic bags, which is why I didn’t mention them. But, what if actions of the majority have the very real power to hurt people, other than those engaging in consumption, and have long term consequences. Do you think the government has a duty to step in when market forces fail?

        Perhaps a satisfactory answer would be to tax the makers of plastic bags to reflect the true cost of the damage they do?

        Keep in the mind the consumers are the grocery stores. They purchase the bags.

        • ShaneYoung

          If someone is directly coerced upon by the “actions of the majority” they have the right to re-compensation through means such as arbitration or through more direct retributive channels. Do I think the government can sometimes be useful in this process? Sure. I’m not sure how this is an example of “when market forces fail” though. Markets are simply means to a free voluntary transaction of property. When I use force or aggression against someone or their property I am no longer operating in this realm. When the government does the same thing, they are no more in the right than when individuals do it.

          I bring up the plastic bags, however, because this is the issue at hand.

          • 3H

            Plastic bags was the example, the issue is governmental intrusion into “market decisions.” I’m addressing the broad scope of the argument, not the example. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of wiggle room in the article for governmental intervention of any sort. The plastic bag is, in my mind, simply a Trojan horse designed to get people to agree that governmental interference is always bad. The article would read differently if Erin was simply addressing the issue of plastic bags.

          • 3H

            Market force.. free markets… are not necessarily good at determining harm either to others, the environment, what have you. Leaded gasoline was bad for both the environment and for the workers involved, and the government stepped in. Part of the problems is that large corporations have money to spend on marketing. They don’t have to completely sell their point, they only need to create confusion… or a “debate”. The tobacco companies managed to stave off government action for decades despite the consensus from the medical community of the dangers of cigarette smoke. Cigarettes are an example of a different issue — the market couldn’t address the issue of what happens when one group of consumers makes a decision that affects a different group. Non-smokers were subjected to cigarette smoke for years – despite making conscious decisions to not smoke. And at an extreme example, the Market can only facilitate activities such as the procurement and selling of children as sex slaves; there is not mechanism within the free market to stop illegal activities.

  • valley person

    Sorry Erin, but people got tired of picking up the trash left by the consumer choice of disposable plastic bags. Learn to live with cloth or paper. It won’t kill you.

  • Mike

    if the costs are hidden, then I don’t see them, so I don’t worry.

  • Jesse

    Vacuous rhetoric. So, the federal government should never have regulated seat belts in automobiles? We should abolish national parks? The question of government involvement in economic activity or public/environmental policy was resolved before the Greeks refined democracy. It’s time for you to either move on or improve the sophistication of your arguments. If you really want to know why the plastic grocery/garbage bag trade-off is worthwhile, seek out that information. It’s available in high detail, by Oregon researchers.

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