Tax Land

The Authoritarian/Totalitarian Plastic Bag Ban

By Rob Roper

Activists and politicians around Vermont are preening with pride about having passed the nation’s broadest ban on plastic bags and plastic products, with a promise (in the form of a study committee) of more to come. As citizens of an ostensibly free society founded upon the principle of limited government, this is not something we should be pleased about. This bag ban is a truly authoritarian/totalitarian policy.

Given that in the current national political atmosphere words like authoritarian, dictatorial, police state, etc. are being thrown about quite a bit, it is probably important to revisit what those terms really mean:

au·thor·i·tar·i·an. Adjective. 1. Favoring or enforcing strict obedience to authority, especially that of the government, at the expense of personal freedom.

to·tal·i·tar·i·an. Adjective 1. Relating to a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and requires complete subservience to the state.

With the bag ban, for example, rather than allow merchants the personal freedom to decide whether or not to provide plastic bags, and customers the freedom to choose what kind of bag they would prefer, the state has usurped and centralized the “authority” to dictate that decision to us, and we are to strictly obey – or the police will force us to. Hence, it is an authoritarian policy.

I also call it totalitarian because in a totalitarian system the totality of decision making for the citizenry rests with the state. If we citizens are not at liberty to decide for ourselves something as minute as “paper or plastic”, what decisions can’t the state make for us? This is not limited government; it’s limitless government. “Total” control.

Sadly, way too many policies becoming law these days are authoritarian, robbing us of individual liberty and requiring obedience to centralized, government decision making. The state has assumed the authority to decide whether or not we must purchase health insurance, what kind, and from whom; where our children must go to school and what they will learn there; everything down to what kind of light bulbs we can use and, increasingly, what kind of electricity we must buy to power those bulbs. The list goes on and on as this seems to be the “progressive” vision.

But this is not, as the chant says, “what democracy looks like.” This is what an authoritarian police state looks like. A society based on individual liberty, as our is (or was), leaves the people free to make decisions for and amongst themselves. The legitimate role of government in such a society is to ensure that private decisions are made “free of force and fraud.” In other words, government is supposed to protect citizens from other citizens who want to force us to do things against our consent. It is certainly not supposed to be the entity doing the forcing!

Government is always, by its very nature, an agent of force. It has what has been aptly described as a “monopoly on legitimate violence.” What makes ours a uniquely free, democratic, and non-authoritarian society is that our Constitution, when followed, limits to a vast degree where and when that violence can be employed. Hence the oft-repeated language in our Bill of Rights like “Congress shall make no law,” rights “shall not be infringed,” government can’t take action “without the consent of the owner”. With respect to most aspects of our daily lives, we do not have to obey government so long as we deal on a peaceful, mutually consensual basis with our fellow citizens.

And this is a good thing. When outcomes are by necessity determined as a result of mutual consent it fosters understanding, cooperation, innovation, diversity, shared value and values. This dynamic is what has made the United States the most prosperous and diverse nation in human history.

On the other hand, when outcomes are the result of one side extracting its agenda from another through force, it leads to anger, resentment, and reactive hostility. We can see this today as government force injects itself into more and more aspects of our lives (such as plastic bags), the more anger, resentment and hostility grows. And, honestly, who wants to live in a society where everything is decided by force or the threat of force besides a narcissistic psychopath who gets a thrill out of controlling other people and bossing them around?

When people for government action these days, they are too often saying, I cannot get my fellow citizens to consensually do what I want them to do, so use the government’s monopoly on violence to force them to do as I say. The impulse to resort to force is unfortunately a common human reaction to not getting one’s way. But giving into that impulse is to embrace authoritarianism at the expense of liberty. This is exactly what our government is supposed to guard against, not foster.

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe.

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