Lawmakers Should Be Held Responsible for Harmful Laws

In America, people are required to repay others when they harm them–intentional or accidental. If a bicycle manufacturer produces a bike with a bad pedal, and it causes you to break your leg, you have a case to sue the manufacturer for damages. The same is true for individuals. If I back out of the driveway and run into my neighbor’s mailbox, I’m responsible for my mistake.

This definition of justice is a tenet of our society.

So why are lawmakers never on the hook when they create legislation that causes damage?

Plastic bag bans are enacted in cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and others. And while these laws were passed with evidently not enough consideration, research done after the fact has revealed some alarming trends. A study by law professors Jonathan Klick and Joshua Wright, as reported in a story by Ramesh Ponnuru at, found that “emergency-room admissions related to E. coli infections increased in San Francisco as soon as the ban was implemented.”

Why would eliminating plastic bags cause E. coli? Herein lies the law that sometimes rears its head as a result of careless laws: The Law of Unintended Consequences. Because people can’t use plastic bags, everyone uses the reusable, cloth ones. When not washed (and the study found that 97% don’t toss their reusable bags into the laundry) these bags can collect bacteria from meat or other products.

Ponnuru continues, “The San Francisco ban was also associated with increases in salmonella and other bacterial infections. Similar effects were found in other California towns that adopted such laws.” And the researchers estimate “that the San Francisco ban results in a 46 percent increase in deaths from foodborne illnesses, or 5.5 more of them each year.”

If this is true, then the ban of plastic bags is literally killing people. A little too dramatic? Maybe so; maybe not. The point is that laws have consequences. And too often our lawmakers are blind to this by knee-jerk reactions to “make the world better” through law.

I was in the Minneapolis mayor’s office last winter awaiting my chance to speak to him about my concern over the city budget being funded by traffic citations (that’s another post–right here, in fact). Also waiting were a mother and son team out to clean up Minneapolis–or at least get rid of this punching bag of single-use plastic bags. The boy was maybe 18, and I asked him, “Why ban the bags?” He said you see them on the street making a mess. This is presumably what city councils in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle thought, too: that because plastic bags were being littered, they ought to be illegal.

I don’t know how the mother and son’s meeting went. (Either way I thought it was cool this young man was taking an active role and that his mom supported him.) But I am also thankful no such ban has taken place in Minneapolis.

Shouldn’t there be consequences for unintended consequences?

If the results of the above study are valid, there ought to be a reaction. I don’t think San Francisco lawmakers should be charged with manslaughter, but why aren’t politicians responsible for the damage they cause? How about financial compensation for lost work and health care expenses as a result of getting a bacterial infection from diseased reusable bags? In one specific instance in LA,  “A reusable grocery bag left in a hotel bathroom caused an outbreak of norovirus-induced diarrhea and nausea that struck nine of 13 members of a girls’ soccer team in October [2012]…The outbreak also affected many family members after the team returned home.” -Los Angeles Times

If nothing else, I’d like to believe that re-election would be in question, but Americans don’t connect the dots and see that 1: there are real consequences to laws–often unintended. Rash law making is dangerous. And 2: we should look to the people who made the laws as responsible. They campaigned for the responsibility. Though they get a lot of pressure from advocates or even the general public, it’s their job to withstand pressure to make bad choices. To give them the freedom to write laws with no consequences is also a dangerous thing. You attract the kinds of people who are interested in power with no strings attached. Rather, lawmakers should research the heck out of the possible consequences when enacting new rules. We should encourage such thoughtfulness.

Lastly, it’s entirely possible that the research above is refutable, and that cost-benefit analyses might support the ban. And though this ban might be a clear-cut example of laws leading to immediate harm, many financial harms from bad policy aren’t seen for years, i.e. when government introduces a new animal species to the environment. So the ability to seek compensation would get very murky. But whether it’s holding lawmakers financially accountable for laws that cause harm or simply making them pay at the polls, they should be held to a higher standard — the standard we have to live by when backing out of the driveway.




  1. The problem is, is that too many government officials (elected and appointed) think they are their own god.

    They do whatever they want. When they are called to the carpet for their mistakes (intentional or otherwise) they:

    1) Act stupid. They claim they do not know what they are talking about. Selective memory.

    2) They claim immunity. They claim that since they are a gov’t official, they have immunity.

    3) They push their misdeed to their entities attorney, to try and get away from their malfeseance.

    4) They push their entities insurance company to straighten out the matter. If there is cost to pay, the insurance company gets stuck with it.

    The fun thing, is that all these gov’t officials that do whatever they want, think that they will be walking into the Pearly Gates of Heaven. Guess again!

  2. I don’t know your background, Brandon, but I believe you have just demolished your own argument.

    The “study” from Klick and Wright was simply a document posted online – it was neither peer-reviewed nor published in any recognized scientific journal. The two authors are both political activists and have no expertise in epidemiology. Their methods and their results are questionable, but their biases are not. This is obviously a case of individuals who don’t know the difference between correlation and causation – and that’s basic science.

    This is also ONE study. Previous research in this area was either biased (in once case sponsored by plastic bag makers) or has shown no significant problems with reusable bags. Science does not base anything on a single source or outcome – especially from questionable sources like Klick and Wright.

    Similarly, the “story” you reference by Ramesh Ponnuru is not news, it’s simply another opinion piece.

    What you HAVE proven is that regardless of whether a piece of legislation is sound or not, some idealogue will invent some scientific-sounding nonsense in an attempt to disprove it. And when there is money to be made or political capital to be gained, the anti-scientific bullcrap gets deep really fast.

    This is the same thing that’s happened with the climate change deniers. Every national scientific academy in the world – as well as every scholarly organization related to climate science – supports anthropomorphic climate. There are tens of thousands of published, peer-reviewed research studies in fields from geography to climatology to biology to physics to anthropology that support man-made climate change. And yet every idiot who listens to Rush Limbaugh can parrot back some line they don’t understand about CO2 or glaciers and claim it refutes climate change.

    I think ideologues who spread this sort of nonsense are the ones who should be held responsible for their attacks on common sense and science.

    1. Cloy,

      You are right. That is a concern, and I tried to address that point in my final paragraph. But even if this law is the best thing ever, the bottom line remains: laws sometimes have drastic and harmful consequences, and lawmakers should be held to the same standard as everyone when doing their job.

  3. Brandon, I understand your position and it is still remarkably naive.

    EVERY law has negative and unintended consequences. Some more than others, but in many cases it’s just a matter of “whose ox was gored.”

    If a law results in the death of at least a hundred children, should the legislators be held responsible? That’s exactly what happened when polio vaccinations were required in the 1960s – some children had unexpected reactions to the vaccine. The law also saved hundreds of MILLIONS of lives; however, if your child was one who died from a freak allergic reaction, a case of Guillain-Barre syndrome, or an infected injection site, the prevention of an epidemic may be cold comfort.

    What if a law puts your company out of business and 100 workers end up unemployed? Requiring car seats for children resulted in less demand for children’s caskets – and potentally put people out of work. The same can be said for companies that manufactured asbestos, lead paint, and dioxins.

    You assume that there are only good laws (which have no negative consequences) and bad laws (which have negative consequences). That’s a simple-minded assumption. EVERY law has a downside, and frequently those negative consequences are not simple and clear cut, nor can they easily be measured in comparison to the benefits of the law.

    Holding legislators responsible for real (or imagined) consequences of every law means you essentially destroy the legislative system and then create a [more] enormous and bloated court system. And trust me, there is a very large pool of ambulance-chasing attorneys who will be more than willing to start filing lawsuits for every possible “harm” done by a law.

    Throw in a few ignorant jury members and you’ve essentially destroyed the U.S. economy and our system of governance. Letting the electorate sort it out at the polls is the only reasonable solution – that’s THE fundamental concept behind the concept democracy – and that’s enough.

    1. As I also said in the article, “holding lawmakers accountable” could mean just what you said in the final paragraph. I agree that all laws have “harmful” consequences in that they shunt resources from one group to another–indeed that’s what happened with the plastic bag ban as I’m sure reusable bags makers were happy to gain business. This article wasn’t about that. It’s about harms that occur outside this shift in resources. In the case brought up, it’s about illness and death caused by lawmakers who didn’t do their homework and didn’t think ahead.

      1. I’m not sure what you mean by: “In the case brought up, it’s about illness and death caused by lawmakers who didn’t do their homework and didn’t think ahead.”

        Lawmakers DID do their homework. That’s the point. They listened to the doctors and scientists, and they required widespread vaccinations, which are necessary to interrupt infection vectors. In doing so they saved millions of lives.

        Are you saying that legislators should be sued for the tiny number of individuals who had reactions? Or would you suggest they get sued for sitting by while various epidemics ravage the population?

  4. Brandon’s post notes: ” When not washed (and the study found that 97% don’t toss their reusable bags into the laundry) these bags can collect bacteria from meat or other products.”

    So now, citizens too lazy or stupid to wash their own grocery bags (and get sick as a result) should have a claim against the Government? Maybe instead of only doling out food stamps, the government should also provide personal laundry stamps! Please, enough!

  5. Every law attempts to prevent or cause certain behaviors, but in order to be effective, the law requires that certain individuals be given the responsibility to punish lawbreakers. This situation has bad effects on both fronts.

    Behaviors do become less prevalent when they are criminalized, and more prevalent when they are required by law. This prevents everyone who is unwilling to break the law from engaging in or avoiding the behavior and thus discovering how to do so without causing problems. This is a tremendous loss. Is that loss offset by whatever is gained through the law? There is no way to tell because there can be no control group: no one will admit that they have ignored the law.

    Those who police the citizens subject to the law will only do that police work if they get paid for it. The theft most people call “taxation” is used to cover their salaries. Taxation represents another tremendous loss to the people. Is that loss offset by whatever is gained through the the law? Additionally, those who are prosecuted for breaking the law lose money and/or freedom simply because they chose something that has been made illegal. This is also a tremendous loss, both for the individual and for the whole idea of individuality.

    If you feel a bit lost, that’s understandable. We are taught that government and laws are good things that are helpful, and when our own reasoning leads us to conclusions opposite from what we are taught, it’s very disconcerting. If you’d like to ease some of the cognitive dissonance, check out voluntaryism, Austrian Economics, and the burgeoning movement toward liberty. What we need in order to prosper is not legislation, but freedom.

Comments are closed.