Plastic Bags and the Place of Government

The future of shopping!

I live in Oregon, a state typically known for its environmental friendliness and urban liberalism (centered in Portland of course). I’m pretty proud to be a resident of this wonderful state, especially now that I can be involved in its political affairs (and by that I mean I’m old enough to vote).

Recently, a bill was introduced in the Oregon senate, Senate Bill 536. The bill would ban the use of plastic bags for check-out in almost every retail setting in Oregon, and require stores to charge 5 cents for each paper bag used. The idea of the bill is to encourage Oregon shoppers to bring their own reusable bags more often, not to tax shopping.

Now, I want to say first that I think this is a great idea. Plastic bags have become almost universally symbolic of retail shopping and are hugely convenient, but have a terrible impact on the environment. I think that this bill is a great way to encourage Oregon shoppers to be more environmentally responsible, and it could be another badge of pride for Oregon’s history of environmental care.

But on the larger scale, this brings up an interesting question of how far the government can and should take their control over the personal lives of the governed. This is a question I’ve been struggling with a lot lately. On the one hand, I want to say that the government should keep its paws out of peoples’ personal lives, and let people allow their own morals to guide their decisions. But on the other hand, I think that government has the unique power, opportunity, and most importantly, privilege to help improve the world we live in and improve the lives of the people that live in it.

Now, on some issues, I would say the government has a responsibility to mind its own business. Some of these issues would be things such as sexual expression (regarding most kinds of sexuality; I’m not condoning pedophilia), religious and spiritual values, and a few other very personal decisions and traits. These are the areas of life that government should avoid intrusion into (and incidentally the ones that many GOP lawmakers seem most interested in meddling with). However, there are some areas of our lives that can be bettered by a governing presence in them. There are too many people who view the government as a purely negative, invasive organization whose only goal is the restriction and removal of their civil liberties.

This is a ridiculous and painfully close-minded view of government. This institution was always meant (in America at least) to be a governing body put in power by the people, and there for the betterment of the peoples’ lives. Personally, I believe that good government not only outlines and enforces fair law, but also helps build and support a better and healthier society. Now, most of the time, I think this should take the form of putting laws and legislation into place that prevent wrongdoing, or providing specialized services (such as Medicare or Medicaid) that can’t necessarily be fully provided privately. However, I think there are many circumstances, such as this one, where the government must encourage citizens to act as they ought to. Environmental responsibility doesn’t come naturally (pun intentional) to everyone, though it should, so perhaps the government has a duty to help the people do their duty.

My liberalism shows pretty strongly here, I know. I never promised to be bipartisan! But here’s my point: While it may seem questionable to some to put a lot of authority in governmental hands, they frankly have much more power than the average individual. And while it could be argued that private groups (companies) can provide many of these services, these companies would inevitably have the wrong motivation for social good: money. The simple fact of the matter is that organizations motivated by profit aren’t philanthropic by nature. Jumping off from this, some form of government is necessary for what I mentioned earlier, where the government sometimes has to encourage the people to do the right thing. This shouldn’t extend to the private areas of peoples’ lives, such as their sexual or religious or political expression, but the government does have a right and duty, to a certain extent, to regulate the ways commerce is executed.

I like this bill not only because I agree with its sentiment, but because of the interesting point I think it helps illustrate: There aren’t just rights associated with being a citizen of a country, but duties as well, and I think environmental responsibility is one of these duties. Our government not only has a duty to protect militarily, but environmentally, even if in some cases that means from its own citizens.

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Filed under Constitution & Controversy, Environment & Nature

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