In America, people are required to repay others when they harm them–intentional or accidental. If a bicycle manufacturer produces a bike with a bad pedal, and it causes you to break your leg, you have a case to sue the manufacturer for damages. The same is true for individuals. If I back out of the driveway and run into my neighbor’s mailbox, I’m responsible for my mistake.
This definition of justice is a tenet of our society.
So why are lawmakers never on the hook when they create legislation that causes damage?
Plastic bag bans are enacted in cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and others. And while these laws were passed with evidently not enough consideration, research done after the fact has revealed some alarming trends. A study by law professors Jonathan Klick and Joshua Wright, as reported in a story by Ramesh Ponnuru at Bloomberg.com, found that “emergency-room admissions related to E. coli infections increased in San Francisco as soon as the ban was implemented.”
Why would eliminating plastic bags cause E. coli? Herein lies the law that sometimes rears its head as a result of careless laws: The Law of Unintended Consequences. Because people can’t use plastic bags, everyone uses the reusable, cloth ones. When not washed (and the study found that 97% don’t toss their reusable bags into the laundry) these bags can collect bacteria from meat or other products.
Ponnuru continues, “The San Francisco ban was also associated with increases in salmonella and other bacterial infections. Similar effects were found in other California towns that adopted such laws.” And the researchers estimate “that the San Francisco ban results in a 46 percent increase in deaths from foodborne illnesses, or 5.5 more of them each year.”
If this is true, then the ban of plastic bags is literally killing people. A little too dramatic? Maybe so; maybe not. The point is that laws have consequences. And too often our lawmakers are blind to this by knee-jerk reactions to “make the world better” through law.
I was in the Minneapolis mayor’s office last winter awaiting my chance to speak to him about my concern over the city budget being funded by traffic citations (that’s another post–right here, in fact). Also waiting were a mother and son team out to clean up Minneapolis–or at least get rid of this punching bag of single-use plastic bags. The boy was maybe 18, and I asked him, “Why ban the bags?” He said you see them on the street making a mess. This is presumably what city councils in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle thought, too: that because plastic bags were being littered, they ought to be illegal.
I don’t know how the mother and son’s meeting went. (Either way I thought it was cool this young man was taking an active role and that his mom supported him.) But I am also thankful no such ban has taken place in Minneapolis.
Shouldn’t there be consequences for unintended consequences?
If the results of the above study are valid, there ought to be a reaction. I don’t think San Francisco lawmakers should be charged with manslaughter, but why aren’t politicians responsible for the damage they cause? How about financial compensation for lost work and health care expenses as a result of getting a bacterial infection from diseased reusable bags? In one specific instance in LA, “A reusable grocery bag left in a hotel bathroom caused an outbreak of norovirus-induced diarrhea and nausea that struck nine of 13 members of a girls’ soccer team in October …The outbreak also affected many family members after the team returned home.” -Los Angeles Times
If nothing else, I’d like to believe that re-election would be in question, but Americans don’t connect the dots and see that 1: there are real consequences to laws–often unintended. Rash law making is dangerous. And 2: we should look to the people who made the laws as responsible. They campaigned for the responsibility. Though they get a lot of pressure from advocates or even the general public, it’s their job to withstand pressure to make bad choices. To give them the freedom to write laws with no consequences is also a dangerous thing. You attract the kinds of people who are interested in power with no strings attached. Rather, lawmakers should research the heck out of the possible consequences when enacting new rules. We should encourage such thoughtfulness.
Lastly, it’s entirely possible that the research above is refutable, and that cost-benefit analyses might support the ban. And though this ban might be a clear-cut example of laws leading to immediate harm, many financial harms from bad policy aren’t seen for years, i.e. when government introduces a new animal species to the environment. So the ability to seek compensation would get very murky. But whether it’s holding lawmakers financially accountable for laws that cause harm or simply making them pay at the polls, they should be held to a higher standard — the standard we have to live by when backing out of the driveway.