First they came for the New York muck, and I did not speak out—because I am not from New York.
Then they came for competitive foot races in wilderness areas, and I did not speak out—because I am not a runner.
Then they came for my plastic straws—and there was no one left to speak for me.
These lines may strike most people as a silly spin-off of Martin Niemöller’s famous quotation out of the World War II era, and they would be right. They’re indeed silly, but all three lines point to seemingly benign activities that are actually illegal under various laws or regulations—the latter most having occurred most recently in California.
According to Reason, the Santa Barbara City Council rode the crest of the latest wave of popular enthusiasm among cities controlled by progressives and unanimously banned the use of plastic straws in restaurants, bars, and other food service businesses.
While Santa Barbara isn’t the first American city to ban their use—Seattle, another coastal city that has flirted with controversial laws passed by leftists, holds that distinction—they appear to have adopted the most punitive sanctions for their use. Possible criminal penalties for violating Santa Barbara’s new ordinance include six months in jail and a $1,000 fine—roughly equivalent to a Class B misdemeanor in many states.
The ostensible purpose of the left’s sudden interest in plastic straw prohibition is to start addressing decades-long marine plastic pollution. Whether such laws in America will have any noticeable effect on reducing the vast amount of plastic that makes its way into the oceans every year is an open question for two reasons: first, the shaky nature of the research calling for these plastic straw ban laws (the research originates with a 9-year-old); and second, a large and growing portion of the plastic infesting our oceans originates in China and in third world nations with little interest in enforcing environmental laws much less operating modern waste management systems.
Setting the environmental aspects aside, I write to highlight an unreported element of this new law.
For over a decade, conservatives and liberal groups alike have partnered to advance criminal justice reform. While the ideologies possessed by either side are polar opposites, there have nonetheless been opportunities to work together to improve public safety, frequently resulting in helping victims of crime while making our corrections systems more efficient, effective and just.
Unfortunately, cases such as Santa Barbara criminalizing the use of plastic straws—which will undoubtedly spread to other liberal redoubts—highlights how the left’s sensibilities over the criminal justice system are riddled with cognitive dissonance. Much of the left’s messaging surrounding law enforcement and criminal justice decries the system where they perceive it as engaging in pervasive bias towards underprivileged groups of people. However, in Santa Barbara and other places, they’re increasingly willing to leverage this same system against disfavored behaviors, industries, or people when their preferred outcome can’t be obtained by persuasion or through market pressures. Ironically, such machinations are likely to fall upon the same group of underprivileged people for whom the left claims to be a vigorous champion.
A more glaring hypocrisy can hardly be found.
Leftists can’t have it both ways—releasing people from prison due to a “rigged” justice system on the one hand, while tossing someone else in the clink for six months and wringing them for $1,000 for handing someone a cheap hollow tube of plastic on the other. If ever there was a balancing test among the left for their preferred public policy—environmentalism or criminal justice reform—Santa Barbara has demonstrated which takes precedent.
There’s a hard truth buried in this story: The left cannot be trusted to maintain a consistent worldview on the purpose and application of criminal justice. The most vocal of them will voice deep concern about heavy-handed sentencing policies and the need to reduce prison and jail populations—which is often warranted. However, this concern seems to run out when a harried Santa Barbara parent wants a straw for their five-year old’s Dr. Pepper at McDonald’s—where the restaurant’s owners would be facing criminal exposure after their first violation of the straw ban ordinance.
Now, when that happens, all bets are off.
This commentary was originally featured in Forbes on July 25, 2018.