Russell Taylor: Down with the bag tax

“People will get used to it and support it,” says Nick Clegg. No, not his odious presence in government, but the so-called bag tax, which will require supermarkets in England to charge five pence for carrier bags from 2015. That’s right: after a few years away, the crunch issue of what you put your groceries in is back on the agenda. Never mind Syria, Europe or the economy; this is something everyone can get behind.

There is no doubt that plastic bags are a menace to the environment. They harm wildlife, choke up our waterways, and take centuries to degrade. If you only examine their costs then measures to reduce their number appear logical and necessary. Wales and Northern Ireland already have similar legislation in place and they have reduced bag usage by up to 80%. It certainly sounds like a no-brainer, but (unlike Nick Clegg), there’s more to this than meets the eye.

People have always had the option of using fewer carrier bags, but, on the whole, they haven’t taken it, suggesting there is little enthusiasm for a bag tax. Perhaps pollsters could drum up evidence to the contrary, but what would that prove? There is often a disparity between what we claim to want when the nice lady with a clipboard asks us and what our actions reveal. When push comes to shove, it seems that we are willing to trade a little environmental damage for a little convenience.

Sadly, the days of the benighted citizenry getting its way are long over (assuming they ever existed at all). “We’re trying to change people’s behaviour,” says Energy Secretary Ed ‘Bagpuss’ Davey, clearly disappointed at the conduct of his unruly flock. A little authoritarian ‘nudging’ is what we need to get us back on track. We’re all eager to kick the carrier bag habit, really, you see; we’re just too weak and lazy to do anything about it. We’re junkies, hooked on the handouts of checkout pushers. We had our chance to go cold turkey, but we blew it, and now it’s time for an intervention. We’re going to do the right thing whether we like it or not.

But what is the ‘right thing’ and who gets to choose what it looks like? Was it already decided? Did I miss a meeting? If you’re old-fashioned enough to believe the public should have a say in these things, then the status quo works just fine. Allow supermarkets to give away free bags and if customers use them, they’ve expressed their preference. If public distaste for carrier bags is real, there will be an appetite for a new type of biodegradable bag. Supermarkets are unlikely to ignore this demand if they think it will give them an edge over the competition, making more eco-friendly bags an inevitability, with or without a bag tax.

Some will say that this market-based analysis is unreliable, because people don’t adapt their behaviour to achieve their preferred outcomes if it requires others to do the same. They’ll leave it to everyone else to make the change, with the effect that no one does. Thus, government action is required to coax us into doing what we wanted to do anyway. But even if we are feckless sheep who need an occasional nip from the government collie, how do we know we’re being herded in the right direction? It’s all very well the eco-worriers announcing that the public wants carrier bags to be eradicated, but that’s really just their opinion. Why should we trust a third-party assessment of what we want over our freely-expressed preferences?

Perhaps there is a higher truth, which is only appreciated by the magnificos of the political establishment, who have a duty to impose it on the rest of us. This is a perfectly reasonable position to hold, so long as you’re happy to give up any pretence of caring about freedom, democracy or the rest of the fogeyish nonsense that gets in the way of doing the ‘right thing’. Suffice to say that those who are of this mind tend to identify with the movers and shakers of the paternalistic crowd, rather than the sorry bozos they have to shepherd through life. I imagine they would see things rather differently if they were the ones being hounded – as they will doubtless discover one day, when the other shoe drops.

I’m not much consoled by the knowledge that bag tax revenue will be given to charities, either. Charity is one of those hooray words that radiates virtue, but, in reality, the people who are committed to saving fluffy critters and feeding starving Africans are often anti-capitalist thugs or bumbling naïfs whose efforts do more harm than good. I don’t want my shopping bill financing wind turbines or bolstering the Mercedes collection of an African kleptocrat. There are good charities out there, worthy of support, but their funding should be received voluntarily, not as the result of government arm-twisting.

When you agree in principle to legislate against people’s free will, you set a dangerous precedent. Or rather, it would be a precedent if we hadn’t made the same mistake before. This time it’s carrier bags, next time it will be a law against patio heaters, or Page 3 girls, or smoking in public. Whoops, too late on that last one. Everyone was so relaxed about it, they let it ride and here we are, five years later, faced with latest item on the meddlers’ to-do list – a list that turns out to have no end. There’ll be no point complaining when it’s something you feel strongly about in the crosshairs. You’ll just have to suck it up, because you consented to the logic of nanny-knows-best a long time ago.

The tax-and-ban culture invariably throws up ‘solutions’ that appear trivial when examined in isolation, which is precisely why they get waved through with so little opposition. Five pence for a carrier bag looks like a small price to pay for ridding us of their scourge, but this issue is just one snowflake in a blizzard. Unless we consider the broader perspective, it’s easy to get lost in the detail. We find ourselves focusing on each concession without taking in the bigger picture, dismissing it as harmless and counting the benefits without appreciating the costs. Eventually, you step back and discover you’re not in Kansas anymore. Everything has changed and the authority to make decisions has been ceded to those who claim to know best.

When life is lived one day at a time like this, it seems petty and churlish to oppose change. It’s just one little rule or one little tax, and look at the good it will do. It’s only in hindsight that you realise the gnarly old timber the wrecking crew took its axes to was one the pillars of civilisation. Its fall might not be enough to bring everything crashing down at once, but societies are rarely killed with one fell blow. Death by a thousand cuts is the more likely outcome.

On the face of things, the bag tax is such a footling issue that it’s not worth arguing about. But in as far as it is symptomatic of modern politics, it has wider significance, and is as good an issue as any on which to make a stand for core Western liberties. The modern state doesn’t always bully and coerce; more often it nudges and obstructs: it makes your chosen journey so uncomfortable that you abandon it and take the route of the government’s choosing. There is something deeply sinister about this tactic, precisely because it forces the individual to make the final decision. You don’t want to make it; in the absence of deliberate hindrances you wouldn’t make it; but eventually you do, and in doing so you betray yourself and surrender to the wishes of the ruling elite. Enough is enough. Down with the bag tax!

26 comments on “Russell Taylor: Down with the bag tax

  1. jazz606
    September 18, 2013 at 10:35 am #

    If we’re going to pay 5p for a plastic bag then we want something better than a err….. plastic bag. Maybe as you suggest a biodegradable bag or one made of natural fibre.

    It isn’t rocket science.

  2. Maneno
    September 18, 2013 at 10:59 am #

    plastic bags ? what about the broken plastic street furniture slathered all over our roads when Gordon brown defined them as ‘investment’.

    Please give us your thoughts about traffic calming. My favourites are the mini-roundabout islands and signs that buses smash up as they try to get round.

  3. Noa
    September 18, 2013 at 11:17 am #

    Good post Russell!

  4. Rocco
    September 18, 2013 at 11:19 am #

    Good article, Russ.
    Remarkably, I’m doing one on this topic, too. What a coincidence, eh? Thankfully we’ve covered it from different angles, so I won’t have to scrap it. Phew!
    On the charity thing, (which I hadn’t covered) you’re spot on. Its amazing how the title “charity” prevents almost all criticism, when alot of them are incredibly objectionable. The Christian ones tend to be the worst, as well. They’re virtually socialist campaigning organizations, riddled with the labour theory of value, and outright hatred of wealth.
    On charities these days, in case you’ve not read it, I’ll recommend “Sock Puppets” by Chris Snowdon, to you. Its a pamphlet from the IEA dealing with how government sets up charities to push government policies to the government, who then lobby government for more funding (on the basis that they’re charities), so they can push these government supported policies to the government more effectively.

    • Russell Taylor
      September 18, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

      Thanks Rocco. Something went a bit weird and the copy of my piece that went up this morning was a draft, not the final masterpiece you will find on the site now. I look forward to reading your piece on the subject.

  5. Bill
    September 18, 2013 at 2:54 pm #

    “Charity is one of those hooray words that radiates virtue, but, in reality, the people who are committed to saving fluffy critters and feeding starving Africans are often anti-capitalist thugs or bumbling naïfs whose efforts do more harm than good.”

    You really are a bumbling prick and couldn’t be more wrong if you tried. I don’t care if you don’t post this but what your piece does show is that the way you perceive charitable work shows what an opinionated arrogant buffoon you really are. Go outside and get a real life you boriing sad and really quite pathetic man, or even better – how about volunteering for a charity so you can see what they are actually like because it is clear to me you don’t know.

    • Maneno
      September 18, 2013 at 6:20 pm #

      Well said Bill. He is making a subtle point tho and crudely lumping all charities together.
      Are you sure you would donate to the RSPCA for example ?

    • jazz606
      September 18, 2013 at 7:01 pm #

      I don’t donate to any charity because I don’t trust any of them, and I’m being quite charitable enough with my taxes.

    • Russell Taylor
      September 18, 2013 at 7:08 pm #

      Thanks for the kind words, Bill. I stand by the claim that a lot of people use worthy-sounding causes to advance a left-wing agenda, and I believe the ‘solutions’ these people put forward often do more harm than good.

      I’ve no doubt that there are some thoroughly compassionate, dedicated people working for charities, but sticking up for them on the basis that they mean well is absurd. It’s what they achieve that matters. When we start valuing good intentions over the purpose to which they are put, a strange kind of morality is at work.

      You obviously lost it in a haze of fury, but I went on to say that there are worthy charities out there, which I am only too happy to support on a voluntary basis. The likes of Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth, however, can do one.

      • Talwin
        September 19, 2013 at 8:26 am #

        As I understand it, even the lovely-sounding ‘Christian Aid’ reveals a political agenda when it has come out anti free-market, gets involved in ‘Stop Climate Chaos’, and organised a ‘climate change day of action’ in 2009.

        I seem to remember, a couple of years ago, RSPCA taking a full page advert in ‘Private Eye’ objecting to the government’s ‘cuts’.

        Maybe Bill is content for his occasional 5p top go to the likes of these, but for sure I’m not.

    • Rocco
      September 18, 2013 at 7:46 pm #

      Sup, Bill!
      Bro, here’s another quote from the article: “There are good charities out there, worthy of support”.
      I can’t believe you missed it, if I’m honest, because its in the same paragraph as the quote you used. Strange. Its almost as if – and I don’t for one moment believe this is true, by the way – you didn’t bother reading the article. Like I say, bro, I’m sure that’s not the case, so perhaps you should make an appointment to see an optician. Its not that bad here, where you’re among friends and all, but in the real world that sort of partial blindness, or whatever its called, might lead you to act rashly. I only say this because I don’t want to see you make a fool of yourself, Bill.
      Take care, bro.
      Peace out!

  6. TerryS
    September 18, 2013 at 3:56 pm #

    Any money raised from the bag tax should go to the NHS to cover the inevitable rise in food poisoning.

    People will not bother to wash their re-usable bags which means their will be a build up of bacteria from the food going in and out of the bags (meat, fish etc). This will lead to more cases of food poisoning.

  7. right_writes
    September 18, 2013 at 5:10 pm #

    I would much rather see money from the bag tax being used to cover “the fourth plinth” in Trafalgar Square with a massive plastic bag…

    It will keep it dry while they make up their minds what to do with it, if nothing else.

    • Rocco
      September 18, 2013 at 5:27 pm #

      Lol

  8. silverminer
    September 18, 2013 at 10:46 pm #

    I’m against any form of enforced giving to charity (because it’s not charity at all then) and if I turn up at the supermarket without the reusable bags I usually take (voluntarily) then I’m forced to do so.

    If they had proposed this tax and used the revenue generated to fund another tax cut then it might have some merit, but that never happens, and they’d probably just reverse whatever tax cut they made at a later date anyway.

    We let them get away with the principle of using taxes to affect behaviour when they started taxing booze, fags, petrol, flights etc. We’re a long way down that road now unfortunately.

  9. Bob H
    September 19, 2013 at 11:52 am #

    From the eco perspective we ought to use more plastic bags and landfill them, so that we capture the carbon for all eternity. They are made from the useless naptha that is flared off on rigs, which fills the air with the evil CO2. There is a typical lack of joined up thinking about baggism.

    Actually, eternity is wrong, because they decompose . The last time this was aired I saved bags for future use, stored things in them and such like. The damned things fell apart.

    I went on holiday to Wales this year and was shocked to have 5p demanded. By a weird coincidence I had just found a coin on the ground in the campsite, so I supposed God was subsidising my donation to charity and handed it over. Subsequently I used the old bags I brought from England for both rubbish and shopping.

    • Russell Taylor
      September 19, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

      I’m sure many carrier bags given away free are reused. By charging for them and reducing their number, we presumably cause a problem elsewhere through their lack of availability. Who knows? The law of unintended consequences tells us the problem is unlikely to be as simple as ministers suggest.

      But as I say in the piece, the cost of eradicating bags is not just 5p; it’s 5p plus all the other legislation that results from this precedent. Add it together and you end up with a society suffocated by rules and taxes.

      Moreover, do we really know that carrier bags are the evil they’re presented as being? They make up just 1pc of household waste. What about the other 99pc? You can’t tax it all. I would suggest this issue is a red herring: apparently obvious with a clever-sounding solution, but ultimately pointless, with secondary or tertiary effects that no one bothers thinking about in their rush to look concerned, eco-friendly and committed to the cult of action.

      • M.G
        September 19, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

        I love the word ‘Libertarian’. It is one of those words that looks good written down as well. It conjures up noble faces raised against the wind – forward into the battle for freedom and justice.
        I think I am one. At least I thought I was one. I look online though and read the blogs and it seams to me it means mainly moaning about not being able to make a dollar from drugs that you think acceptable, not having enough jelly wrestling students or soft porn magazines, writing sensationalist stories in the Mail about video games, whilst at the same time tweeting about how good they are and to ignore ratings.
        And here – a big tantrum over getting used to taking a bag to the supermarket and how, errr, you know, anyways charity is just a big left wing ecotard conspiracy anyhow.

        You are the very children who wont behave that necessitate this crap in the first place.

      • Rocco
        September 19, 2013 at 4:23 pm #

        SOFT porn?

        YOLO!

      • Russell Taylor
        September 19, 2013 at 5:22 pm #

        For starters, I’m not a fundamentalist when it comes to libertarianism. I’m sceptical about drug legalisation and open door immigration, for instance, whereas more hardcore libertarians favour them.

        But think about what you said about taking bags to the supermarket. Get used to it; get on with it. Why? Because you’ve been told they’re a problem and this is the solution? Don’t you see how such compliance is dangerous in a society. Make no mistake: the people who agitate for these things are not all nice, agenda-free people trying to help. For many, pushing people around is an end in itself, and it is through bullshit campaigns such as this that they exercise their power.

        As for charities, yes I think many are terrific, but many aren’t, and the environmental variety top the list. You cannot tell me they aren’t hives of anti-capitalism and misanthropy.

  10. David
    September 19, 2013 at 5:25 pm #

    I dont understand. I was refering to the huff over the Co-op and Lads Mags. Soft porn is quite a good description I think. Are you arguing that all pornography is ‘hard’ as in exploitative, sexist etc? Or that there is no distinction between page three and what you can see on the internet?
    I only live once? How do you reply to question marks, capitalisation as inference and trendy misplaced acronyms?

    • Rocco
      September 19, 2013 at 5:40 pm #

      Don’t know, bro. YOLO?

  11. Brian Williams
    September 19, 2013 at 11:36 pm #

    2015? Before or after the election?

  12. Bob H
    September 20, 2013 at 12:59 pm #

    MG seems to be making the point that some people who describe themselves as libertarian complain about trivial bans . The implication is that they are being trivial themselves. It is the prohibition that is trivial, and as such is not a serious matter for law. Each one adds to the death of a thousand cuts for liberty.

    The word libertarian was coined to replace liberal which had been usurped by socialists. This erosion of meaning appears to be starting for the new word. I notice myself that people will often complain about unreasonably restrictive legislation, but immediately follow this with a list of their own prohibitions.

    Someone who believes that adults are children who need petty rules is a nanny, not a libertarian, however they self-describe.

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