The lives of ordinary people have been made worse by the elimination of plastic bags in supermarkets – achieved by legislation in most states and by the corporate virtue-signalling led by the ever-diminishing duopoly of Coles and Woolworth. This impact, you must understand, is not a side-effect or something taken into consideration during the pursuit of a broader policy objective; the harm and confusion it causes to the mass of the people is actually the real objective.
Elite decision-makers live with the existential guilt associated with their good fortune to live remarkably free and prosperous lives. They cannot abide that so many further down the social hierarchy do not share that guilt, being as they are concerned with such quotidian matters as scraping together a living, trying to keep the government’s hands off what they do earn while keeping a family fed and housed.
The elites, though guardians of the social order, realise they cannot convince the masses to experience a guilt similar to their own, and so develop new ways to humiliate and confuse. They might even say publicly that a change in attitude will eventually follow from an enforced change in behaviour, but to do so would be disingenuous.
To make somebody live a certain way, especially when that mode of life is against that person’s interests and beliefs, is surely the most satisfying intervention a power seeking guardian of the social order can undertake. It was Orwell who pointed out that a totalitarian state would make someone say that black is white or 2+2=5 not in order to change their mind but to break their spirit and prove that they can be made to say or do anything.
The desire to control others people’s lives lies deep within human nature. Homo sapiens evolved in clans and tribes, with evolution rewarding behaviours appropriate to self-preservation but also behaviours associated with group preservation. It is no use being able to dominate everybody around me if my group is attacked and massacred by the neighbouring groups. If you have any doubts on this, read Napoleon A. Chagnon’s account of the Yanomamo people of the Orinoco basin in South America, along with Matt Ridley’s excellent account of the evolution of humans and their societies in The Origins of Virtue.
Evolution within groups relies on reciprocity and the gradual building of intra-group trust. To encourage trade and exchange of gifts, I must be confident that you will reciprocate in the approved way, so I receive something, and that you will be punished if you don’t. Thus, norms, rules and culture are developed, and the leaders of law and culture enforce those norms and rules.
Mostly this is by social pressure, and sometimes by physical punishment. In traditional societies, the enforcers emerge organically and become the ‘big men’, or even the ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’, whose word is law even if the law is verbal and partly mutable. In modern societies, law is more abstract and impersonal, but around it exists a stratum of society which derives deep satisfaction from policing the viewpoints and behaviours of the society. Even though western society has, uniquely, shed clan and tribal affiliations in favour of individualism, it has not and cannot shed the habits of mind attributable to the evolution of a moral sense.
Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, neatly demolishes the conceit that with the decline of religion and the crisis in conservativism the forces of morality are in retreat. Rather, it might be true that a stern form of Christianity ever-watchful for fornication, adultery, intemperance and impiety is in retreat, but a different yet no less stern morality has taken its place at the centre of most liberal democracies.
Obsessed with fairness, it believes that all sacrifices must be borne equally. Better that all live equally in mediocrity or misery than that some may aspire and flourish. God (or Gaia) forbid, literally, that someone might get some enjoyment out of life. But how to instantiate that equality of sacrifice? Answer: by creating sacrifices so that they can then can be endured equally.
I can well imagine that our social guardians may well lie awake tormented not by the prospect of the fires of damnation – as someone of their personality type most certainly would have been five centuries ago – but rather by the sight of dolphins swimming through plastic bags. In either case, the fear of purgatory requires penance, a sign of self-abnegation through surrender and sacrifice.
But it is not enough that they take a righteous course by carrying hemp bags in their bicycle baskets for when they might need to buy some groceries. No, it is vital and extremely satisfying to make sure that everybody else also has to. That other people may not be cycling home through Fitzroy and Ultimo and dropping into the vegan grocer on the way home from a hard day at the university, but rather slipping into the supermarket (quelle horreur) after a long shift to make sure they have milk to put on the kids’ breakfast cereal the next morning, is irrelevant. All must pay, all must sacrifice.
The pleasure taken and the smugness displayed by politicians and self-appointed defenders of “the environment” reminds me of the famous quip of Macaulay’s, that “the Puritan hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.”
What we have now is not the Nanny State, it is the Nuisance State. The phrase Nanny State implies a degree of maternalism, a care for the subject. Rather, the state is now in the business of creating nuisances. Ironically, the common law of England evolved to protect people from nuisance, usually from a neighbour. The tests for a case of nuisance applied by judges and juries were:
- unreasonableness on the part of a defendant;
- continuance of acts constituting nuisance for an unreasonable period;
- causal connection between defendant and nuisance complained of; and.
- existence of injury or damage threat.
In cases of deliberate nuisance, which we see in the case of disputes between neighbours turned toxic and vindictive, courts could award exemplary damages beyond the mere harm suffered.
The state increasingly, through measures like bans on plastic bags, is creating a deliberate nuisance, which in the absence of access to common law remedies has the happy accompaniment of creating a class of supplicants. We must either keep a slew of reusable bags secreted in various locations and vehicles for when we might need to shop, or we pay out our penance through the 15 cent charge on a plastic bag. The latter option is exactly equivalent – in psychological terms – to the sale of indulgences as practised by the mediaeval Catholic Church, with the State standing in for the Vatican.
Confession is too time-consuming, and has in any event been anathematised, so better to pay the almoner. Perhaps Coles will ask its long-suffering checkout staff to recite the words of the most notorious quaestiarii (pardoner) of the fifteenth century, Johann Tetzel, who would say as money was exchanged for absolution: “as soon as the coin rings in the bowl, the soul for whom it is paid will fly out of purgatory and straight to heaven.”
In the ban on plastic bags and in a thousand petty ways every day, ordinary people are forcibly reminded of their lowly position in the social hierarchy, and the determination of their betters to police the boundaries of social behaviour. The nuisance it creates for all of us is not a bug, it’s a feature.
Scott Hargreaves is the Executive General Manager for the Institute of Public Affairs.
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