Responding to the Incentives of Ideological Regulation in Barrington

ecoRI News reports that some larger chain stores in Barrington are reacting to the town’s ban on disposable plastic shopping bags by searching for the line at which bags are no longer considered disposable:

CVS and Shaw’s are promoting their thicker plastic bags as reusable. Shaw’s currently offers free paper bags and charges 10 cents apiece for the plastic bags. CVS stopped using paper bags altogether and this year shifted to free plastic bags.

Town Council vice president Kate Weymouth claims the thicker checkout bags defy the intent, if not the letter of the ordinance. In an e-mail to supporters of the ban, Weymouth wrote that the town’s ordinance relied on boiler-plate language from other bans across the country.

She wrote that the oil, gas and plastic industries fear losing revenue from the bans, so “they have legally worked around the language of these bans, and in ours specifically, by producing a thicker ply plastic, sticking handles to the top and stamping them with the word ‘reusable.’”

Well, good for them.  If only do-gooder progressives would start learning how incentives work.  Somewhere, in Barrington, a family that would otherwise drive its station wagon home full of thin plastic bags is now driving their SUV home filled with thicker plastic bags.

The council vice president’s response is instructive.  Inasmuch as they are characterized by their faith in government, progressives have a strange reverence for the government’s decrees (at least when those decrees align with their ideology).  The biggest incentive that they may be missing, though, is the incentive to stop taking the law seriously when it becomes too meddling and dictated.

The other day, I described two understandings of government and democracy: one seeing government as a means of relieving citizens of the need to build their lives around protection of their own rights (especially through violence), and the other seeing democracy as a means of making people feel like they have both buy-in and a means of acting peacefully to change the regime when they disagree.  (Digression: Arguably, these were jointly benefits of representative democracy, once, but with the expansion of government and the deterioration of politicians’ willingness to abide by their own laws, the principles are separating.)

The question that Ms. Weymouth should consider is why these companies — or anybody, at this point, really — should care one bit about “the intent” or the spirit of the law.  They don’t feel represented in the government, and they feel the direct burden of its decrees while doubting that the intent will have a real, positive effect on outcomes.

I’ve said it before:  We’ve reached the point, in this country, that one complies with the law simply to stay out of jail, not because the law deserves our respect.

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