Everyone is in favor of protecting our environment, but there are those who take the matter too far, and jeopardize fundamental freedoms in the process. I'm speaking specifically of a piece by Stephanie Simon in the Wall Street Journal of October 18, 2010 entitled "The Secret to Turning Consumers Green, It isn't Financial Incentives. It isn't More Information. It's Guilt."
Among other things, the piece discusses and advocates measures such as a Washington D.C. ordinance that imposes a 5 cent fee on paper or plastic bags furnished by retail stores, and requires that the bags be specifically requested. This is an effort to embarrass consumers in front of their peers for their lack of environmental awareness. District Councilman Tommy Wells is quoted as saying "It's more important to get in their heads than in their pocketbooks."
The article concludes with an admonition from a psychologist that "We can move people to environmentally friendly behavior by simply telling them what those around them are doing."
In our household, we're most concerned about the environment and put that concern into effect by seeking to recycle or reuse everything from grocery bags to dishwater, and carry canvas tote bags to market, and encourage others to do likewise, but on a voluntary basis.
Seeking to "nudge" people into "correct", socially beneficial behavior all sounds so innocent and pure... until we consider the likely longer term implications for our freedom. If stores want to charge for bags, that's their business and we can either pay or go elsewhere, just as we see in the airline industry with baggage fees. I also have no problem with government genuinely informing people of what others are doing. What worries me is the idea of government seeking to force people to conserve with public shaming tactics or worse.
I shouldn't be surprised that we're hearing about such an ordinance in Washington D.C. in view of the other onerous mandates coming from there, such as ObamaCare. I have real problems with government seeking to single out citizens for shame or ridicule for engaging in entirely lawful behavior, simply because some in government prefer that they not do so. As we have seen in countries such as the Soviet Union, Cuba, China and Cambodia, governments often start out with seemingly benevolent measures for the greater good, and gradually or suddenly become much more repressive, especially insofar as they enlist citizens to spy and inform on one another.
Certainly, making people ask for paper bags shouldn't be equated to Gulag statism, and I'm not saying that it is. What I am saying is that the 'end justifying the means' is an extremely dangerous rationale, and that as citizens we need to be alert to its misuse. I don't want my government in the name of environmentalism or any other cause intentionally trying to shame citizens out of doing anything, especially something that is clearly lawful on its face. The same goes for 'deputizing' or encouraging citizens to do this with other citizens.
As noted in the Christian Science Monitor, http://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2010/0806/Will-government-help-hurt-electric-cars-like-the-Chevy-Volt, I'm also skeptical about the efficacy of such coercive efforts, and feel that market-based mechanisms yield superior results. It's disturbing that we seem to be moving from economic incentives to use electric vehicles, to more coercive measures to facilitate conservation.
It's too dangerous to rely upon such efforts being limited in scope after their limited implementation. Far too many bureaucrats start to believe their own rhetoric about the social benefit of their activities and use this belief to justify ever-more coercive measures, going way beyond nominal fees or disclosure of consumer behavior. I'm not, and it doesn't take, a Tea Party stalwart to recognize the vast expansion of government power which has occurred in recent years. Many feel that this expansion is antithetical to our economic growth and the upcoming elections will be a referendum on this belief. As bad as many feel that recent measures are, I think that formally enlisting peer pressure for this purpose opens a new front in the struggle to preserve personal liberty.
Environmental protection is very important for our long term survival. However, personal liberty protection is equally important, and dictates that we vigorously resist efforts to enlist Americans as informers or enforcers against each other. We need to find methods to preserve both our environment and our liberty.