Chesterton’s Fence and Carrier Bags

As with seemingly a good portion of my newly-acquired knowledge, I first heard about Chesterton’s Fence over at Tim Worstall’s blog.  Chesterton’s Fence is the principle that reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood:

[L]et us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

I’d actually forgotten about this until it was mentioned again more recently in the comments at Tim Worstall’s, and it reminded me of something I saw in Avignon the weekend before last, which in turn reminded me of something I had been thinking for a while.

While in Avignon, I was walking down a busy shopping street when I saw a young lady carrying a large paper bag full of groceries in her arms.  As I walked past her, the bottom of the bag fell out and the groceries went everywhere.  I commented to my companion that there are very good reasons why plastic carrier bags were invented and became extremely popular, and that I’d often thought these reasons were not properly considered when France banned them at the beginning of July (my local supermarket stopped providing them sometime last year, and they don’t even give you the option of buying them like you can in British supermarkets).

The American practice of using paper bags doesn’t really work in any place where you have to walk any distance with groceries, let alone use public transport.  The American-style paper bags are designed to be packed by a former convict and wheeled to your car in a trolley, not carted down the street by hand.  They don’t even have handles for a start, and the young lady who I saw in Avignon was carrying hers in her arms as if it were a child.

I think the behaviour that governments and the lobbyists want the citizens to adopt is one whereby they turn up to the supermarket with one or more robust, reusable grocery bags but this only really works when the shopping trip is planned.  What somebody is supposed to do if they pop into the supermarket to buy more than two items on the way home is anyone’s guess, unless they fancy forking out a fiver for one of those robust, reusable grocery bags.  I expect what we’ll find is people taking up the habit of carrying around a small, compact bag in case they need to do some unscheduled grocery shopping at some point in the day.  During the good old days of the Soviet Union, the happy citizens would routinely carry around a string bag called an avoska, which roughly translates as “perhaps bag”, on the off-chance they would stumble across a store selling something worth buying and would be able to carry it home (before swapping it with a neighbour or friend in return for something they might actually want).

For some people, particularly middle-class environmentalists, forcing the masses to adopt practices common in the Soviet Union is probably seen as progress.


14 thoughts on “Chesterton’s Fence and Carrier Bags

  1. When I lived in France I had my boot and my home stuffed full of reusable bags. My boot rather latterly when I realised my home stuffed full of them was not much use if I forgot to take a few with you when going shopping.

    Your remark about the Soviet union. Had not thought of that but so true.

  2. Before one advocates for the removal of plastic bags from the environment they should first understand why the market created them in the first place.

    “Paper, Plastic or Cloth: Which Bag is Best for the Environment?

    The conventional HDPE bag had the lowest environmental impacts of the lightweight bags in eight of the nine impact categories. Yes, the convential High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) (aka “plastic”) bag had the least impact upon the environment of all the bags considered in the study, which considered a number of bags made from different plastics, as well as both paper and cotton-based materials!”

  3. Fucking fuckers. I suppose that énarques just send the servants out to do the shopping.

  4. Pingback: The vitally important part of the plastic bag ban | Tim Worstall

  5. I’ll get to see if this has changed next week, but earlier this year the supermarkets on the Riviera were selling “rubbish bags” for 5 (or 10?) cents each at the checkout counters.

    These “rubbish bags” were made of HDPE plastic, had handles, and in fact looked remarkably like the shopping bags that were once on sale in the same place at the same price except they were black instead of white and had some messages about “deposer des ordures” and “trier pour l’environment” on them.

  6. Here in Finland the convention is that shopping bags (19 euro cents each) are re-used as garbage bags. The charge has been there for years, I don’t even remember when it became mandatory (perhaps late 1980’s).

    So some shop in France has now invented the opposite, i.e. use a designated garbage bag as a shopping bag.

  7. I just keep an old carrier bag folded flat in my back pocket. The only drawback is that the source of plastic bags used to line waste-paper baskets etc has dried up. Fortunately the new law doesn’t apply to organisations with (I’m told) <250 employees. So the local shop on the high street is free to continue supplying plastic bags, and will usually give me half a dozen if I ask politely.

  8. @FrancisT Once upon a time (many decades ago and well before I was born) the Australian dairy industry was concerned that people were buying margarine but not butter. They managed to persuade the government to put a tax on margarine. However, it only applied to margarine that was intended to be spread on bread, and not to margarine that was to be used for cooking. Thus every tub of margarine in the country was described as “cooking margarine” on the packaging, and nothing else happened.

    Personally I reuse shopping bags as rubbish bags, just like Pekka, the population of Finland, and presumably everybody else.

  9. Personally I reuse shopping bags as rubbish bags, just like Pekka, the population of Finland, and presumably everybody else.

    Indeed. Or for putting shoes in when packing a suitcase.

  10. For what it’s worth, in my region of America, we use paper bags WITH handles. They are quite nice and reusable for lots of things.

  11. @ R,

    The ones my local supermarket has just introduced are paper bags with handles…but they don’t look as though they could be reused for much, they look too stiff to be used to line a bin or wrap shoes in.

  12. Paper bags are useless in the rain. Now I need to buy garbage bags to line my bin. Seems I generate the same amount of waste plastic bags, plus, unless I remember my shopping bag, a lot of thick paper bags which are only good to be recycled.

  13. Pingback: Even More on Carrier Bags | White Sun of the Desert

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