California nanny-staters are at it again. Sometime later this month, the Los Angeles City Council is expected to pass a ban on plastic carryout bags. Not surprisingly, San Francisco was the first U.S. city to impose a plastic bag ban and California accounts for almost two-thirds of the 74 plastic-related bans in the U.S.
The merits of the bans are, at best, questionable. Recent studies have shown that the unintended consequences of the bans often outweigh their benefits. For instance, an audit found that bag litter has accounted for a higher percentage of San Francisco’s litter in the years since the city banned plastic bags than it did in the years before. But that won’t stop Los Angeles from imposing a similar prohibition, just as it didn’t stop Watsonville from becoming the first city in California’s Santa Cruz County to ban single-use plastic bags. After all, it is about saving the planet.
In California, it is always about saving the planet. Or saving the children. Or saving the animals. Or saving ________. You get the picture.
That’s why California is constantly banning things. Just this week, the Corona City Council approved a ban on clothing donation drop-off boxes because they “were becoming an eyesore.” California’s chefs are currently rallying against the state’s soon-to-take-effect foie gras ban. Children in Santa Clara County will no longer get a toy with their restaurant meals due to a ban, while weekend warriors in Glendale may no longer use synthetic turf in their front yards. If you enjoy an occasional caffeinated beer, shark fin soup or “Kosher for Passover” Coca-Cola, you are now out of luck in California, as statewide bans have taken effect this year. California also recently became the first state to ban indoor tanning for minors, even with parental permission. A State Senate-passed bill to ban foam takeout containers did not pass the State Assembly last year, but the assault on Styrofoam, which makes serving containers inexpensive and reusable, is far from over. While the state-wide Senate measure is still eligible to be voted upon this year, city councils in San Jose and Hermosa Beach are proceeding with their own local bans.
As with the plastic bag bans, many of these measures, while undoubtedly well-intentioned on some level, are fraught with problems and unintended consequences.
The indoor tanning prohibition for minors, for example, gives California the dubious distinction of being the first state in which “a 12-year-old girl can decide to get an abortion without informing her parents, but a 17-year-old can’t decide whether or not to get an indoor tan, even with their parents’ permission,” as one commenter on the New York Times blog observed.
Apart from being unwarranted social engineering tools preventing responsible citizens from making consumption decisions for themselves (or precluding parents from parenting), bans like these also ignore the 800-pound gorilla: the state’s dire fiscal straits, to which regulatory implementation costs and unintended consequences of such measures only add.
Businesses as well as residents are fleeing the state in droves because of its dismal tax and regulatory climate. According to the latest “Rich States, Poor States” study by Stephen Moore, Arthur B. Laffer, and Jonathan Williams, more than 1.5 million people have left the (really-not-so) Golden State since 2001, accounting for the second-highest outmigration ratio in the nation.
However, it is not just people and investment that migrate from California to the other states — the bans do as well. In the mid-1990s, California was the first state to enact strict indoor workspace and bar and restaurant smoking bans, which are now the norm in many states. San Francisco’s plastic bag ban is another case in point. Vermont just implemented a strict indoor tanning prohibition for minors that is modeled after California’s, while at least 17 other states are considering similar measures this year.
It looks like the old saying “as California goes, so goes the nation” still holds true — so kick back and enjoy your caffeinated beer on your synthetic front lawn while you can, as more nanny-state bans will likely sprout up in your state soon.
Sandra Fabry is a freelance writer and public policy expert. Focusing on state and federal spending, accountability, and regulatory issues, she previously served as the executive director of the Center for Fiscal Accountability, which has recently been rebranded as the Cost of Government Center at Americans for Tax Reform.