Restricting choices creates more problems

Recent policies take on a paternalistic approach that push individuals towards rash decisions

Queen’s will soon stop selling plastic water bottles on campus, Toronto recently banned plastic bags and the administration is currently reviewing Queen’s alcohol policy.
Queen’s will soon stop selling plastic water bottles on campus, Toronto recently banned plastic bags and the administration is currently reviewing Queen’s alcohol policy.
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Graphic by Ali Zahid

The Byzantine Emperor Leo VI prohibited his subjects from eating blood sausage in the 10th century because he found it “offensive and blasphemous.” Sadly, Leo’s philosophy of enforced public virtue is alive and well today.

History has been littered with examples of righteous authorities attempting to shape the behaviour of individuals, for often ill-advised reasons.

Each one of these attempts has come with unintended consequences and we are no stranger to this phenomenon today.

Toronto’s city council just approved a ban on plastic shopping bags, with a goal of making shopping more environmentally responsible.

This legislation was well-intentioned, but the cold reality is that most reusable plastic bags require the same amount of plastic and energy to produce as 28 single-use bags (subsequently taking much longer to break down in landfills).

Research also shows that only about 10 per cent of people take advantage of the reusable shopping bags they own. This will only get worse as competition pushes down prices and reusable bags get increasingly treated as single-use.

Furthermore, reusable bags have been linked to health problems like norovirus — one study showed that 12 per cent of all bags contained E.coli bacteria a result of people failing to use them properly or clean them.

None of this invalidates the use of reusable shopping bags of course, but people should be able to make the choice that is best for them — a harder decision when an authority restricts their options.

This type of prohibition is happening everywhere. New York City has proposed a ban on the sale of large sugary drinks in order to fight obesity and related diseases. San Francisco banned Happy Meals last year to curb childhood obesity.

Closer to home, Queen’s will cease to sell bottled water at campus outlets starting this fall, in accordance with a 2010 proclamation by Principal Daniel Woolf.

While it’s undoubtedly within the rights of the university administration to ban bottled water on campus (within the confines of their existing contracts), is it really the right thing to do?

Bottled water is a service as well as a good — people are actually purchasing the convenience of having a portable drink.

When the Toronto District School Board instituted a trial ban, they found that most students switched over to soft drinks rather than drinking from fountains and a 2006 study showed that 70 per cent of adults purchase bottled water as an alternative to other bottled drinks.

It’s seemingly not a substitute for tap water. At Queen’s, it’s also likely that many students will bring bottled water from home or buy it off-campus.

But the ban is actually about symbolism, some say, and taking a stand against commercialization. Clean water must be a right for everyone, not a commodity for corporations to package and market like other consumer goods.

Consider this however: producing one litre of domestic bottled water requires two to three litres of tap water.

By comparison, one litre of soda takes 10-300 litres of water to produce, based on its ingredients. A litre of fruit juice can require over 600 litres of water to produce.

If only a small portion of students choose to buy a bottle of soda or juice instead of drinking from a fountain, much more water will be expended than if they could simply purchase bottled water itself.

If the purpose is to make people think about water as a human right, the ban will be a failure because more water will be used as a result. What good is a symbolic gesture that actually causes environmental harm?

The symbolism argument also puts the cart before the horse — instead of trying to change a culture and make individuals more responsible for the decisions they make, banning products is a feeble attempt to legislate problems away.

If you want to change minds, you can’t do it by limiting choices alone, but by confronting the root issues. Otherwise, you’ll merely push people to go a greater length to get what they want.

This summer brings another example of Queen’s frail attempts at prohibition. Throughout the upcoming months, the Alcohol Working Group will be evaluating proposals to stem alcohol-related incidents on campus. This may ultimately include closing campus bars before the legally required time or prohibiting certain kinds or quantities of alcohol from being sold there.

Again, this would be completely within the rights of the university, which holds the liquor license under which campus bars operate, but is it the right thing to do?

The stakeholders of the group have noble goals, but anything they propose that restricts student choices is not a solution, it’s a Band-Aid that may yield dangerous consequences.

Putting the cookie jar on top of the fridge doesn’t make the child desire cookies any less; it just encourages them go to unsafe lengths to get what they want.

The same is true in this instance — if students can’t get what they want in a safe and comfortable location, it won’t change their preferences, it will push them to go someplace unsafe.

Changing rules on alcohol isn’t only a paltry stopgap measure, it’s a transparent attempt to disown liability for future events.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Leo VI wanted to improve people’s wellbeing, New York and San Francisco want to make people healthier, banning plastic bags and bottles is meant to make people less wasteful and restricting alcohol is intended to curb anti-social behaviour.

But the world doesn’t work that way. If the objective of the water bottle ban is to reduce the use of bottles, then all bottled beverages must be banned, or else the only effect will be to shift consumption habits by removing choices.

If the objective of the Alcohol Working Group is to guide students toward making safer choices when drinking, the answer certainly isn’t to encourage unsafe choices.

In both cases, there is an alternative — to take on the underlying issues of personal responsibility to ourselves and each other.

It wouldn’t be nearly as easy as wishing away our troubles, but it’s the only way to meaningfully achieve our objectives.

Personal responsibility cannot simply be engineered by ruler or legislator alone.

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