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Reason Foundation

Libertarian Perspective

California: Nanny State 911

Race to ban trans fat, smoking, light bulbs, and plastic bags

Adam Summers
April 9, 2007

There is a domestic emergency, of sorts, in California these days. Unlike the popular television shows, however, the nanny is the problem, not the solution. No, California's problem is much worse than a misbehaving toddler; it is the overzealous politician (and those nosy neighbors who support them). Some might call these audacious au pairs petty tyrants, but they are tyrants nonetheless.

Having failed to resolve such serious problems of the day as the state's structural budget deficit, crumbling infrastructure, declining public education, and public pension funding crises, impetuous politicians have taken it upon themselves to decide for us what kind of light bulbs we should buy, what kind of food we should eat, and even that ever-present grocery store conundrum: paper or plastic?

Yes, today the State Legislature is rife with so-called "nanny bills." The following are just some examples of the nanny measures that are currently working their way through the legislative process in Sacramento:

Then there is the recently-passed San Francisco ordinance that will require the city's larger grocery stores to use recyclable paper bags (costing 3 to 5 cents apiece) or biodegradable plastic bags (4 to 10 cents apiece) instead of the traditional plastic bags (about 1 cent apiece). Adding insult to injury, Supervisor and ordinance author Ross Mirkarimi said it would be "mean-spirited" for retailers to pass on these higher costs to consumers instead of dutifully licking the hand that beats them and absorbing the losses.

At the state level, a new law that takes effect July 1 will require retailers to provide plastic bag recycling containers, print a recycling message on bags, and offer reusable bags for sale.

On their own, each of these bills might appear to be merely a minor trespass on our liberty. As such, many might not lift a finger to fight them and instead quietly acquiesce, but that is what makes them so dangerous. Those small transgressions quickly add up. One day we may realize that all those minor violations of our liberties amounted to a large loss of freedom. By then it will be too late. As philosopher and economist David Hume said, "It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once."

In short, government is turning into the homeowners association from hell. It is time to ask ourselves again what the proper role of government should be. Government, if it must exist at all, should exist to protect the lives and property of its citizens against those who would violate these most basic of individual rights. It is not to make every decision for its citizens and dictate the course of their lives.

As Assembly Republican leader Mike Villines has astutely argued, "Could you imagine the Founding Fathers dealing with--I don't know--wearing a helmet when you're in the buggy? We all know you can't mandate behavior; it just does not work. It creates criminals of people for things that are not criminal behavior."

The point is not that recycling grocery bags or abstaining from smoking in the presence of children or spaying/neutering your pets are bad ideas. It is that we should not have the power to compel everyone else to live their lives the way we think they should. We must be free to make our own decisions (even the bad ones), so long as we do not infringe upon the rights of others. If we turn over all our decision-making power to politicians and bureaucrats, we have become nothing more than a bunch of sheep blindly following our shepherd master. Then again, perhaps that is what those in power in government ultimately want.


Adam Summers is Senior Policy Analyst


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