By Ryan McMaken*
The latest trend in banning plastic stuff is the nationwide trend toward eliminating plastic straws from restaurants. A commonly-given justification for the ban is the fact that there’s a lot of plastic garbage floating around in the ocean.
Of course, this rationale seems a bit odd for some locations. In Fort Collins, Colorado, for example — which is about a thousand miles from any ocean — locals feel the need to “do their part” by convincing local restaurateurs to ban the offending objects.
One can already see that this will be inconvenient for toddlers and their parents, and for the physically disabled, but with private firms choosing whether or not to use straws, it’s not really an issue that requires a strong opinion.
On the other hand, when it comes to government-sponsored bans on straws, things are considerably different.
This is because at the heart of every government law, rule, and regulation is the fact that violence must ultimately be employed to enforce those laws. Indeed, Santa Barbara, California has announced a new ban on plastic straws that brings sizable punishments, if violated:
Violating Santa Barbara’s plastic straw ban could land you in jail for up to 6 months and a fine up to $1,000 per violation.
However, the City says it won’t actually punish anyone that severely if they break the rule.
And how do we know the state won’t punish people accordingly? Well, we have nothing but the promise of its spokesperson. After all,
municipal code does state a violation could land the provider in jail for up to 6 months and lead to a fine up to $1,000; however, there are no plans to actually enforce that penalty. Instead, the city will do education and outreach in order to get providers to comply.
In other words, the actual statute makes it clear that any violators are subject to large fines and jail time for each infraction. That means passing out 5 straws could lead to years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines.
In the future, will judges and city prosecutors refrain from applying these penalties because some city employee said they won’t back in a 2018 news story? Don’t bet your livelihood on it.
The city maintains it is free to begin handing out fines and jail terms whenever it wishes. After all, if the city was committed to not using these punishments, why not write the ordinance in such a way that it’s legally impossible to do so?
More likely, these rather draconian punishments will stay in the law books, and whenever it pleases the city to attack any political enemies or eccentric who hand out a few straws, then victims ought to prepare to be ruined financially, or worse.
Violence Is the Currency of Government
There’s nothing new about this, of course. When a government passes new laws, it relies on its agents with guns to enforce it.
The state likes to remind people that it enforces laws against felonies like murder and assaults. That’s good public relations for the state. But in reality, the state spends far more time enforcing small non-violent acts like petty drug offense, and even against small-time entrepreneurs who run afoul of regulations banning hair braiding, or car rides, or any other act committed “without a license” or without government approval.
Take, for instance, government bans on selling raw milk. Governments continue to shut down buyers and sellers of raw milk. Terms like “shut down,” however, are euphemisms that hide the reality behind these closures.
When a government regulator orders a private business to cease operations, it is not making a suggestion. If the “offending” firm were to say “thanks, but no thanks” the government regulator would return with armed agents who would then make arrests and cart the “perpetrators” off to a jail cell. If they resist enough, they are likely to be shot by gun-wielding bureaucrats.
This, of course, is exactly what happened in the 2011 Federal raids on a private members-only club devoted to buying raw milk. As is so often the case with enforcement of government regulations on peaceful activities, government agents not only made arrests, but they also seized cash and other private property, in order to line the pockets of government agencies.
After the arrest came the prosecution — with draconian fines on the table. As the Atlantic noted in 2011:
the mood in the courtroom was almost comical when [club organizer James] Stewart’s initial $121,000 bail was announced. “We’d been watching child molesters and wife-beaters get half that amount. James is accused of things like processing milk without pasteurization and gets such a high bail amount … the felons in court burst out laughing.”
When politicians and activists support new regulations, however, they always downplay the reality that some day, people are likely to end up in court or prison, having their lives ruined for nothing more than wanting to purchase a certain type of milk or plant, or wanting to engage in some other sort of commerce without the proper government paperwork.
Often, the people who are subject to prosecution don’t even know they’re in violation of any law. Most normal people don’t keep up with every government regulation which governs peaceful activities. Normal people know that theft, fraud, and assault are illegal. This is built into the human experience. The illegality of everything else, though, rests primarily on the arbitrary whims of lawmakers. Who can keep track? Often, the first thing the victims of state regulation hear about their “lawbreaking” is a bureaucrat’s demand for payments of sizable fines.
Supporting Government Regulation = Supporting Violence
In the end, though, support of any government law is the same as supporting the violence necessary to enforce those laws. Support of the Drug War, after all, is equivalent to locking fathers, husbands, wives, and mothers in jail for possessing certain substances. Supporting laws against raw milk is equivalent to supporting SWAT-style raids on people who sell milk, and subsequently ruining them with huge fines. Supporting laws against buying or selling certain foreign goods is the same thing as supporting imprisonment and six figure fines for the “crime” of buying and selling.
To hide this violent reality, however, interventionists have invented a wide variety of fictions. In some cases, we ought not complain because of “democracy.” In other cases, we’re told the “social contract” justifies it all. As Jeff Deist has noted:
Progressives hate hearing that taxation is theft, that government is force, and that every rule and regulation implies violence for noncompliance. It offends them on a visceral level, because their entire worldview hangs on the myth of social contract.
Supporters of the Santa Barbara straw ban are likely to react the same way. “Why, we’ll just ‘educate’ people,” they’ll say. And if people refuse to be properly re-educated? Well, then it’s off to a jail cell, of course, with the state all the while chanting the refrain of an abusive husband: “you see what you made me do?”
About the author:
*Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is the editor of Mises Wire and The Austrian. Send him your article submissions, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.
This article was published by the MISES Institute.