Legislators continue to ignore a law they greatly dislike. They dislike it because they can’t think of a way to repeal or modify it. But ignoring it is a short cut to disaster. Among other things, it makes plain the fatuity of their pretensions:
Democrats’ environmental activism continues to backfire, as evidenced by the massive spike in consumer purchases of plastic bags in California, which banned supermarkets from using carryout plastic bags to package customers’ groceries.
Researchers at the University of Georgia found that while the plastic-bag ban may have been well-intentioned, it did not stem the use of plastic bags. In fact, it unintentionally fueled enormous sales of commercial trash bags.
“That’s because while plastic grocery bags are viewed as a single-use item, they often find a second use as liners for small trash cans,” Science Daily reported Wednesday.
“When these shopping bags are taxed or taken away, people look for alternatives — which means they buy small plastic garbage bags.”
The increase in sales of trash bags following California’s store plastic-bag ban was staggering.
Amazing! Recycling and reuse motivated by ordinary household needs and incentives! Legislatively interfered with to ill effect! Who could have imagined?
But this is the story of all legislative interventions into the preferences and behavior of private citizens. The Law of Unintended Consequences dismisses the legislators’ intentions; it acts directly on the incentives they’ve attempted to modify or thwart. Have a little Herbert Spencer:
There appears no suspicion that in cases where it seems to fail, natural causation has been traversed by artificial hindrances. And yet in the case to which I now refer—that of the supply of houses for the poor—it needs but to ask what laws have been doing for a long time past, to see that the terrible evils complained of are mostly law-made. A generation ago discussion was taking place concerning the inadequacy and badness of industrial dwellings, and I had occasion to deal with the question. Here is a passage then written:
An architect and surveyor described it [the Building Act] as having worked after the following manner. In those districts of London consisting of inferior houses built in that unsubstantial fashion which the new Building Act was to mend, there obtains an average rent, sufficiently remunerative to landlords whose houses were run up economically before the New Building Act passed. This existing average rent fixes the rent that must be charged in these districts for new houses of the same accommodation—that is the same number of rooms, for the people they are built for do not appreciate the extra safety of living within walls strengthened with hoop-iron bond. Now it turns out upon trial, that houses built in accordance with the present regulations, and let at this established rate, bring in nothing like a reasonable return. Builders have consequently confined themselves to erecting houses in better districts (where the possibility of a profitable competition with pre-existing houses shows that those pre-existing houses were tolerably substantial), and have ceased to erect dwellings for the masses, except in the suburbs where no pressing sanitary evils exist. Meanwhile, in the inferior districts above described, has resulted an increase of overcrowding—half-a-dozen families in a house, a score lodgers to a room. Nay, more than this has resulted. That state of miserable dilapidation into which these abodes of the poor are allowed to fall, is due to the absence of competition from new houses. Landlords do not find their tenants tempted away by the offer of better accommodation. Repairs, being unnecessary for securing the largest amount of profit, are not made. … In fact for a large percentage of the very horrors which our sanitary agitators are trying to cure by law, we have to thank previous agitators of the same school!—Social Statics, p. 384 (edition of 1851)….
Writing before the repeal of the brick duty, the Builder says: “It is supposed that one-fourth of the cost of a dwelling which lets for 2s. 6d. or 3s. a week is caused by the expense of the title-deeds and the tax on wood and bricks used in its construction. Of course, the owner of such property must be remunerated, and he therefore charges 71/2d. or 9d. a week to cover these burdens.” Mr. C. Gatliff, secretary to the Society for Improving the Dwellings of the Working Classes, describing the effect of the window-tax, says: “They are now paying upon their institution in St. Pancras the sum of £162 16s. in window-duties, or 1 per cent per annum upon the original outlay. The average rental paid by the Society’s tenants is 5s. 6d. per week, and the window-duty deducts from this 71/4d. per week.”—The Times, 31 January 1850.—Social Statics, p. 385 (edition of 1851).
See then what legislation has done. By ill-imposed taxes, raising the prices of bricks and timber, it added to the costs of houses; and promoted, for economy’s sake, the use of bad materials in scanty quantities. To check the consequent production of wretched dwellings, it established regulations which, in mediaeval fashion, dictated the quality of the commodity produced: there being no perception that by insisting on a higher quality and therefore higher price, it would limit the demand and eventually diminish the supply. By additional local burdens, legislation has of late still further hindered the building of small houses. Finally, having, by successive measures, produced first bad houses and then a deficiency of better ones, it has at length provided for the artificially-increased overflow of poor people by diminishing the house-capacity which already could not contain them!
Spencer wrote all that in the Nineteenth Century / Victorian Era in which he lived. It was plain then, just as it is now, that laws that attempt to constrain people’s private choices cannot change anyone’s needs, desires, or priorities. The law can only attempt to penalize them, but to what effect? Yet legislators keep on trying to intervene in such matters, nearly always to disastrous effect.
I’m sure my Gentle Readers can come up with a million examples of such “well meant” interventions in our own nation and time. I propose that the time has come for us no longer to grant the intervening legislators and regulators the presumption of benevolence.