Many people contend Seattle's new law requiring a 20-cent per bag fee is frivolous and exemplifies government's tendency to curtail individual freedom. But far from being frivolous, this innovative law will decrease the annual production of bags by 184 million - and the resulting 4,000-ton reduction in greenhouse gases will be multiplied many times over if Seattle's model is replicated widely.
Rather than curtailing freedom, this kind of environmental regulation is based on longstanding precedent allowing government to prevent nuisances in order to protect public health and safety. The bag law does not conflict with any individual freedom delineated in the U.S. Constitution.
A hundred years ago, many people complained about government campaigns to curb the spread of tuberculosis by banning spitting in streetcars. Global warming is a more abstract but not a less dangerous threat than tuberculosis. We are a freer people because of the lowered incidence of tuberculosis, and if we lessen the severity of global warming, future generations will be freer as a result. And by acting now, we can preclude the need for far more drastic actions down the line.
We no longer live in a frontier society containing seemingly limitless resources to exploit for individual gain. Rather, ours is an urbanized and overpopulated world in which one person's behavior often affects others, necessitating community-oriented approaches to complex problems if we want to maintain our freedom and our ability to attain a decent quality of life.
Voluntary action is great, but it has proved insufficient to address the scale of the global warming problem. We severely hamper our ability to deal with environmental and social problems if we take government action off the table. We value our freedom, but all too often we ignore the Founders' admonition that with freedom comes obligations. If we abuse our freedom by failing to act as responsible stewards of our nation's resources, by failing to direct our government to provide sensible ground rules for living together, we will ruin things for future generations.
Right-wing presidents' actions to curb "big government" regulations have resulted in deadly mining disasters to Hurricane Katrina because the Bush administration associated its agenda with federal interference. In such instances, government action would have been warranted.
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It's ironic that while right-wing ideology concerning government's threat to freedom has resulted in deadly inaction, at the same time right-wing officials have directed government to take forceful actions that have threatened freedom - for example, by abrogating habeas corpus, inflicting torture, spying on citizens without warrant, intimidating union-organizing efforts and declaring that the president possesses the arbitrary power to change legislation by issuing signing statements.
Given this grim context, people trivialize the struggle between freedom and oppression when they contend that modest regulations, such as the bag law, threaten freedom. We view the world through ideological rather than pragmatic lenses when we see every regulatory action as a threat to freedom. What would the families of miners who died due to lax regulation say to those who mockingly equate government regulations with a "nanny state"?
In some instances government oppresses, but in other instances government provides the foundation for enhancing individual freedom and fulfillment, and provides security against very real dangers. It would be more useful to judge each policy on its own merits, asking whether a government proposal actually poses a threat to liberty or is instead more simply an inconvenience.
Our bag law, though inconvenient, will promote the common good, and for this we can justly be proud.
Daniel Burnstein, associate professor of history at Seattle University, is the author of "Next to Godliness: Confronting Dirt and Despair in Progressive Era New York City" (University of Illinois Press 2006).
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