Wednesday 4 June 2014 9:16 pm

We should always heed the law of unintended consequences

THERE were two reactions to yesterday’s Queen Speech: critics dismissed it as lightweight in the extreme, a collection of reheated policies seasoned with a little trivia; supporters celebrated a government that understands that passing fewer laws is often better than frenetic legislating. Both sides were wrong.

For a start, there are revolutionary pension bills in the Queen’s Speech, parts of which were only announced a few days ago; these rules will change Britain in fundamentally important ways and cannot be dismissed as insignificant. Some of the changes to the tax rules, the planning tweaks, changes to rules governing the payment of invoices and other reforms will also make a difference – in some cases for the better (by making it easier to develop shale gas) and sometimes for the worse (under the guise of helping small business, the coalition is actually imposing more red tape in the labour market and elsewhere).

Taxing plastic bags isn’t as significant, of course, and some large chains already charge. But the tax will impose costs on some people and therefore further bolster the cost of living crisis. There is also worrying evidence from the US that suggests that bans on plastic bags can have devastating side-effects that environmental campaigners have never even considered. The problem is that reusable bags can be very unhygienic, especially when used to carry meat but also in other cases; they are frequently not washed or disinfected enough, which can cause terrible problems.

In their fascinating paper Grocery Bag Bans and Foodborne Illness, Jonathan Klick of the University of Pennsylvania and Joshua D Wright of George Mason University studied what happened after San Francisco County became the first major US jurisdiction to ban plastic bags in 2007. Worryingly, they found lots of evidence that reusable grocery bags – a common substitute for plastic bags – contain potentially harmful bacteria.

Other research cited by the authors found that the coliform bacteria can be found in 51 per cent of the reusable bags tested and is more prevalent in California, especially bags collected in the Los Angeles area. E. coli was found in eight per cent of the bags. The study found that most people did not use separate bags for meats and vegetables, that 97 per cent of people didn’t wash reusable bags and that bacteria grows at a faster rate when bags are stored in car boots.

Klick and Wright examined emergency room admissions related to these bacteria and found that “visits spiked when the ban went into effect. Relative to other counties, ER admissions increased by at least one fourth, and deaths exhibit a similar increase.” In other words, if the research is right, the ban increased  some deaths from food poisoning and bacterial infections by 25 per cent – a terrible outcome. Of course, the research’s results have been disputed by some, but it clear that taxing plastic bags, while it undoubtedly reduces litter and landfill mass, can also have horrific side-effects on people’s health.

Aside from the plastic bag tax, and more generally when it comes to the Queen’s Speech and other such set-pieces, it is wrong for conservatives and free-marketeers to fixate on the supposed benefits of a government that legislates less. If everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds, to paraphrase Candide, then we wouldn’t need any new laws and reforms so the best government would be the one that did the least. But we don’t live in such a utopian world: there are huge problems with all areas of public policy and they need to be tackled urgently.

A great government would be one that focused on two sorts of changes: it would repeal as many rules as possible, with the view to increase competition and remove barriers to entry; and it would cut taxes and dramatically simplify the tax system. Such radicalism, sadly, is not on offer in this country.
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