The flop heard ’round the world?

Lauren Noble Founder, William F. Buckley, Jr. Program
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Earlier this month, consumers in my hometown of Concord, Mass., lost the ability to purchase bottled water at local restaurants and shops. At a town meeting this past April, residents ratified a bylaw banning the sale of single-serve plastic water bottles by a margin of 39 votes: 403 in favor and 364 opposed.

Before then, I had never attended a town meeting in my life. Entering my old high school, just miles away from the Old North Bridge where great patriots advanced the cause of freedom more than two centuries ago, it initially did not cross my mind that my neighbors would snub the “limited” part of limited government. Nor did I imagine that they would do so with a smile and a self-assured confidence that they were standing on the right side of history. Somewhere along the way, I hoped, common sense would kick in and run its natural course. Unfortunately, that was not to be.

This occasion marked the third attempt to pass the ban, the brainchild of now-85-year-old Concord resident Jean Hill, who put it before a town meeting for the first time in the spring of 2010. She cites environmental pollution, corporate greed, and what they mean for the future of her grandchildren as the source of her concern. But what the bylaw means for the future of liberty is of far greater concern.

The bylaw is the first of its kind on a city-level in the United States. In making the case for it at a town meeting, its proponents sought to imbue this novelty with historical significance. They invoked over-reaching comparisons to the American Revolution, contending the ban would amount to the “shot heard ’round the world” of our time.

One Concord resident exclaimed: “We’re really talking here about a revolution, and it’s not a revolution of the sort of that’s going on in Syria, or that was even fought here a couple hundred years ago and some. It’s a revolution in the head; it’s a revolution about ideas and whether or not others may appreciate leadership.”

Another decried “the influence of wealthy profit-seeking corporations” and noted: “The choices we make here can affect the future of all beings on this planet. Once, when we encountered injustice we threw the tea in the water. We stopped the British at the bridge. We were the shot heard ’round the world. Let’s do it now. Let’s make a statement that will be heard ’round the world.”

A history teacher at the high school urged, “I would really encourage us to be revolutionary again. There have been allusions tonight to the revolutions in Concord. And those are not out of place …”

You can’t make this stuff up. While there’s no doubt that these Concordians are firing shots, unfortunately, they’ve aimed at their own feet. One resident who argued that the ban represented “our one chance to make a huge statement to the world” was correct in one sense. Its comical symbolism is an alarming statement about how deeply we have defaced the spirit of 1775. The American Revolution was a rebellion against state coercion and in favor of limited government; in its eager embrace of a new plastic statism, today’s Concord has taken the opposite course.

And sadly, this step backwards accomplishes nothing that could be construed as progress. Singling out bottled water — over soda, alcohol, or other potentially harmful substances — will not make our society a healthier one. Nor will it protect our environment from plastic pollution, or fundamentally change the politics of water rights and the bottling industry.

Instead, those residents who wish to purchase bottled water will simply bring their business to stores in neighboring towns. Students using the high school vending machines will no longer be able to select water over the other sugary drinks it offers — drinks that are linked to diabetes and obesity.

In other words, the ban protects people neither from each other nor from themselves. And it bears repeating that it concerns water — not pornography, not illicit substances, not hate speech — water. Given this stunning absence of logic, it’s tough to imagine what the next target will be.

But it’s not difficult to understand what this means for individual liberty and the practice of limited self-government. The ban’s initiator hinted at her attitude toward the latter when, following the failure of the measure at a town meeting in 2011, she blamed “well-funded corporations who used paid employees to execute a strategy of scare tactics and lies, calling our homes, going door-to-door, sending mass mailings, and distributing out-of-date memos at Town Meeting.”

Peaceful and reasoned efforts to resist illogical restrictions of individual liberty do not, however, qualify as scare tactics. Advocates of limited government, both liberal and conservative, would do well to reject this kind of thinking and be skeptical of those who put it to use.

In their series of grandiose historical comparisons, the bylaw’s proponents see in themselves only what they wish to see. And they commit the same mistake when they look toward the small Australian town of Bundanoon, which banned bottled water in 2009, as a model. The leader of that initiative, Huw Kingston, even traveled to Concord to speak in favor of the ban at the April town meeting. But it turns out that the ban his town implemented was voluntary.

On the other hand, Concord’s new bylaw restricts freedom of choice. It’s certainly no shot heard ’round the world. But a flop heard ’round the world? Time will tell just how much.

Lauren Noble is the founder and executive director of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program and a former writer for the Romney campaign. The views expressed here are her own.