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Plastic Bag Bans are not Reforms

Reform is important. People have to make changes to make progress. But some ideas for change are good, and some are bad. To achieve reform, we need to sort out the good changes from the bad changes.

People can and do make mistakes frequently. To achieve reform, we have to use methods which are capable of figuring out our mistakes and improving on them. Methods which can do that are called “rational”.

If would-be reformers do not use rational methods, they will make things worse instead of better. They will implement mistaken ideas. That is destruction, not reform. So, how can we judge proposed reforms?

  • Uses reason to consider the issues.
  • Makes only true arguments.
  • Actually works as intended. Watch out for unintended consequences!
  • Makes things better, not worse. If possible it should be thoroughly better, not a mixed compromise.
  • Reforms should be cooperative, not adversarial.
  • Communicates why and how it is a reform. Aims to persuade people.
  • Most or all people agree to it voluntarily because they understand that it’s good.
  • Goes one step at a time instead of trying to remake society into a utopia tomorrow.
  • Has been considered critically.
  • Refutes all criticisms that try to say it’s a mistake.
Some cities are banning plastic bags at grocery stores. Lobbyists claim that they are reformers and their ban is a reform. It’s not.

Real reforms work as intended. Take a look and tell me if the plastic bag ban is working as intended:



How is this possible? Isn’t it illegal? Actually, where I live, the ban only applies when you visit a grocery store, but not to grocery deliveries. It has a big loophole.

Why does this happen? Because the “environmental activists” did not successfully communicate why the ban is good. Safeway isn’t persuaded that plastic bags are bad, so it still uses plastic bags in legal ways. If the activists had made better arguments, then Safeway would work with them and follow the spirit of the ban. Instead, the activists used irrational adversarial methods, instead of finding a way to cooperate with Safeway for mutual benefit.

Plastic bag bans also increase shoplifting. That is an unintended, bad consequence.

Plastic bag bans (and their arguments) have been critically considered but have not successfully addressed the criticisms, as rational reform would.

Why are plastic bags worse than other types of bags? Why should they be banned? Where is the rational analysis?

Actually this has been studied, but the activists and lobbyists chose to irrationally ignore the results. The study by the UK’s Environment Agency concluded, “The conventional HDPE [plastic] bag had the lowest environmental impacts of the lightweight bags in eight of the nine impact categories.” And that study didn’t even consider the costs of laundry or washing bags!

Environmental impact is not the best way to consider plastic bags. But it is the way the anti-bag lobbyists look at it, and they are wrong by their own standards.

The right way to look at bags is in terms of human impact. What is the impact on human lives? Does a particular policy make life better or worse for human beings? Humans should come first.

When all types of bags were available, plastic bags were chosen because they were the best for humans. Grocery stores wanted happy customers. Plastic bags are strong, light, clean and cheap. Banning them denies humans these wonderful, modern benefits of plastic bags.

The anti-plastic-bag lobby has argued that the bags use up our limited oil supplies. However, this is simply false. Real reform avoids factually false claims.

Anti-plastic-bag activists have not communicated a coherent, well-reasoned, true argument for why plastic bags should be banned. Plastic bags are good for humans and good for the environment, and complaints such as their use of oil are false.

The plastic bag ban does not meet the criteria necessary to qualify as a reform. It is actually irrational, pointless destruction, not reform.

That illustrates how to approach reform the wrong way. What is the right way? Let’s consider a concrete example.

A rational reform was the transition from transportation by horses to cars. Horses had problems such as polluting the streets with poop, getting you wet in the rain, and being slow. Changing to cars made life better for people; it reformed the old situation.

How was this reform accomplished? By voluntary action and rational argument. People were not forced to give up their horses, nor were they forced to use cars. They didn’t have to be forced because they understood that the new way was better. People wanted to make the change and happily participated, rather than working against it (like Safeway continues to use all the plastic bags they can).

Not everyone changed right away. Early cars were expensive and had some other downsides, but over time cars became clearly superior. And some people had special circumstances that made a horse better for them personally (even today some people still have horses, and that’s fine). So each person switched to a car if and when it made sense for him. Forcing someone to buy a car that isn’t right for him, or not letting someone buy a car when he decides it’s best, would both hurt people.

Even when a reform is a good idea, such as switching from horses to cars, it still has to be approached in the right way or it could hurt people. People should only switch when they are persuaded – when they think switching is best for themselves. Reforms should proceed by voluntary methods and people should make changes when their rational judgment says to.

Changes in bag use should be approached more like cars and transportation were.

This is not a new idea. People who want to be thinkers and reformers should know better. They should take responsibility for learning how to reform correctly before trying to do it. The philosophers Edmund Burke and William Godwin explained reform around 1790, for example Godwin wrote:
Let us consider the effect that coercion produces upon the mind of him against whom it is employed. It cannot begin with convincing; it is no argument. It begins with producing the sensation of pain, and the sentiment of distaste. It begins with violently alienating the mind from the truth with which we wish it to be impressed. It includes in it a tacit confession of imbecility. If he who employs coercion against me could mould me to his purposes by argument, no doubt he would. He pretends to punish me because his argument is strong; but he really punishes me because his argument is weak.
People make mistakes. Trying to argue your case is a great way to test if you might be making a mistake. If you persuade people, maybe you’re right, or at least no one knows better. If you don’t persuade people, maybe you’re wrong, maybe someone knows better, maybe someone can tell you something you didn’t know. So attempting persuasion is a rational win/win approach; it works out well whether you’re mistaken or not.

If your explanations fail to persuade people, it’s time to consider that you might be mistaken, or you might not have clear enough ideas. If your ideas aren’t clear enough for other people to understand why they are true, you shouldn’t be persuaded either. Your ideas aren’t good enough (yet). Reconsider or work on them more.

If you can persuade people, that is a good sign that you have a quality idea. It’s a good candidate for reform. If you cannot do that – if your idea isn’t that quality – that’s an unbelievably bad excuse for using force.

Why doesn’t the anti-plastic-bag lobby persuade everyone to stop using plastic bags? Because they can’t. It’s that simple: they would persuade everyone if they could, but they can’t.

Their arguments are not good enough. So far, they’ve failed at persuasive reasoning. And how do they react to that? Irrationally. Anti-plastic-bag lobbyists pretend that they ban plastic bags because their arguments are strong. Actually they do it because their arguments are weak.

They aim to force their bad ideas on us, rather than aiming to improve their ideas. Changing society that way is not reform, it is irrational destruction.

Elliot Temple on March 24, 2013

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