As of July 1, foie gras has been banned in California. On May 30, Mayor Bloomberg announced plans to ban soda servings greater than 16 ounces in New York City. In January, Kim DotCom’s website, Megaupload, was taken down. These are but a small portion of things that have been banned by local, state, and federal governments in the U.S., and they are all good examples of bad ideas.
A government should really consider three things when deciding whether it should ban something:
1. Why is it bad?
The examples above illustrate government restrictions that clearly did not use this line of thinking.
Foie gras is a luxury food consisting of the bloated liver of a duck or goose that was force fed for a couple weeks before its slaughter. Animal rights activists in California thought it was abusive enough to warrant a state-wide ban, and they got it.
Is the process of making foie gras somewhat disturbing? I think so. Was this ban a good idea? No.
By failing to address the second question, it is asking for problems down the line. Banning the food does not resolve why people were buying it. There are two potential reasons: Either people don’t know how foie gras is made, or they don’t care. For either case, banning it is not winning people over to the animal rights cause. It will surely increase tensions between the food industry and the activists.
Obesity is a problem in the U.S. and in New York City. There is little doubt that drinking large amounts of soda contributes to this problem. Will a ban fix it? Nope.
Even if soda were outlawed altogether, people would simply find replacements for it. Banning sodas over 16 ounces is even more inane, since smaller containers are still going to contribute to the obesity problem. The ban has turned into such a joke in the media, its unlikely that anyone has seen this as a serious wake up call to start eating healthier.
Internet pirating poses a serious problem to the media industry. By the very highest estimates (which are surely inflated since this comes from the Motion Picture Association of America), pirating costs the movie industry $20.5 billion a year. Is banning data-sharing sites a good idea? No.
The FBI is entering into the most frustrating game of whack-a-mole it will ever encounter. As soon as one data-sharing site is taken down, three more will spring up to take its place. Yes, these sites are primarily used for large-scale copyright law violations, but trying to stop everyone from illegally downloading things could only be fully achieved with the Internet being switched off. Things like SOPA and PIPA do not address why people are pirating media, and banning it will certainly not fix the problem.
So what should be done?
Education is the main solution. If everybody knew about the terrible process of making foie gras, maybe there wouldn’t be any demand for it. If everybody fully understood the health effects of drinking soda, maybe they could get healthier on their own. Animal and health activist groups should take it upon themselves to try and educate the public on these topics. Relying on the government to control the products just isn’t going to cut it.
The third example, Internet pirating, would require something different. Education wouldn’t make much of a difference, since few people don’t understand that downloading copyrighted products for free is illegal. Companies are going to have find solutions that will ensure they are getting their dues, consumers are getting their media, and the Internet can stay alive. Maybe it isn’t right for the companies to have to bear the cost of change when they are the victims of crime, but relying on the government to fix the problem isn’t going to work.
The point here is not that all government bans are inherently wrong; in some cases, they can be useful. If the ill effects of something are not well understood by the public (e.g. leaded gasoline, invasive species), a government ban can be a positive preventative force. But nowadays it seems people view a government ban as just another tool for advancing their particular agenda or protecting their business model, and it has been abused as such.