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Yes, Environmental Externalities Exist. but Bans Aren't the Way to Go

October 5, 2018 in Economics

By Ryan Bourne

Ryan Bourne

‘What on earth is going on in the UK?” asked a
Washington DC friend this week. She wasn’t referring to the
fate of Chequers, Theresa May’s “Dancing Queen”
conference speech entrance, or even Corbyn’s planned
nationalisation of the economy.

No, what piqued her curiosity was the increasing penchant of
British politicians and regulators for bans and
“crackdowns” on every day items or pleasures.

The particular trigger was the Environment Secretary’s
comments that his next target in the “war on plastic”
would be that great scourge of our time: the disposable nappy.

Michael Gove, of course, ultimately clarified that the
Government had no intention of banning disposable,
plastic-containing nappies altogether. But we can be forgiven for
assuming the opposite.

Every day, it seems some UK Government official, MP or regulator
advocates restricting us from buying or using something.

In recent months we have heard plans or ideas for a doubling of
the plastic bag tax, bans for single-use plastic straws and cotton
buds, a ban on sales of energy drinks to teens, a tax on
milkshakes, a call for McDonald’s to stop giving toys away
with happy meals, a crackdown on disposable ballpoint pens, razors,
and balloon sticks, and a ban on wood-burning stoves. All these
idea have been floated by the supposed free-market

Sadly, this is not a Tory-specific affliction. In Scotland, the
SNP beat a hasty retreat this week after a furious backlash over
its anti-obesity strategy, which proposed banning takeaways from
giving customers free poppadoms and prawn crackers. Perhaps feeling
left out, the Advertising Standards Agency also banned a Costa
Coffee advert after receiving two complaints it encouraged
unhealthy eating. At times it feels not so much a slippery slope of
lifestyles and environmental regulation and control, but as if we
are caught in an avalanche.

This “no pleasure left behind” approach has good
intentions, of course. For all the myriad barking ideas,
politicians are cack-handedly trying to solve two perceived
problems. The first is pollution, particularly the damage that
non-biodegradable plastics cause in oceans or landfill. This
genuinely imposes social environmental costs on to others and
cannot be obviously solved by assigning property rights. The second
is obesity, especially relating to collective healthcare costs.

In the face of evidence
that when free to choose we don’t all decide to be life-expectancy
maximising machines, public health campaigners, as with
environmentalists, are getting more draconian.

The main problem with the idea of bans, crackdowns or
ever-rising taxes, of course, is that they simply ignore the
benefits or enjoyment we get from the consumption itself. As such,
preventing us buying certain things or setting taxes such that
consumption plummets to near-zero leaves us all …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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