Last week, after a fifty-six year dry spell, the San Francisco Giants finally won the World Series. It was like some weight had been lifted. Indeed, one might think that the city had previously banned the winning of championships like they seem to ban everything else. While San Francisco has not yet (to my knowledge) considered instituting a championship ban, you might be surprised at some of the things the city has banned.
Ban Francisco’s (see what I did there?) ban-happy binge began benevolently enough by banning weight-based discrimination in July of 2000. The next year they took another step in towards the protection of civil liberties by banning Internet filters in public libraries. Up to this point, the city’s bans were justified—they were working to protect residents’ rights. Unfortunately in Ban Francisco’s case, these early reasonable bans acted as the gateway drug that led to the city’s current unhealthy addiction to ridiculous banning.
In 2003 things took a turn towards the absurd when the city banned Segways on sidewalks and bike paths. While there were valid safety concerns, proponents cited public health concerns to justify the ban. Their argument: Segways promote laziness and obesity. So while San Francisco doesn’t allow discrimination on the basis of weight, it’s actively working to keep residents from getting too fat.
The city next set its sights on schools, first by banning irradiated foods from being served, then by banning popular JROTC programs in response to the federal government’s promulgation of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Drunk with power from these initial successes, or perhaps just delirious from food poisoning after consuming large amounts of bacteria-infested, non-irradiated foods, the city went on to ban BPA, handguns, smoking in public places, tobacco sales at pharmacies, and ads that feature alcohol or promote the use of firearms (including many movie posters). But city officials didn’t stop there, they went from banning potentially dangerous things to banning merely annoying things like loitering in front of nightclubs and most recently sitting or lying down on the sidewalk. This need to ban found its way into the political realm when Ban Francisco prohibited city employees from traveling to Arizona on city business in response to a controversial immigration law.
The city went on a crusade to save the earth by banning Styrofoam to-go containers, plastic water bottles, incandescent light bulbs, and plastic grocery bags. When it finished saving the earth, it moved on to saving the animal kingdom by prohibiting declawing cats, feeding wild birds, and serving shark fin soup. More recently the city attempted to ban the sale of household animals within city limits, but the measure was tabled in the face of opposition.
With the plant and animal kingdoms secure and school-children and city residents protected from the most insidious of evils, the City Council moved to protect city residents from the last, and perhaps most dangerous threat—the threat they posed to themselves. Recognizing that Ban Francisco residents could not be trusted to make wise decisions on their own, the council banned trans fats, sugary sodas in vending machines, and in the most recent coup to grace—McDonalds Happy Meals.
With this most recent ban, in a blatant attack on a hallmark of American childhood, Ban Francisco has gone too far.
I don’t want to get into the issues behind the bans. In fact, most of us probably make choices in our personal lives that mirror the Ban Francisco initiatives. And therein lies my point. By making decisions that have historically fallen within the realm of personal purview, Ban Francisco has deprived its residents of one of the keystones of democracy—the freedom to choose.
It’s not the substance of the bans that concerns me, what frightens me is the lackadaisical attitude that most exhibit in the face of the incursion of government into their personal lives. The substance of these bans is not important; it’s the underlying idea that government knows best that’s dangerous. It doesn’t take a lot of creativity to imagine where these nanny-state policies might lead. If the government is allowed to institute policies to protect us from ourselves, where would these policies end? Should the government ban potentially dangerous activities like skydiving, contact sports, or driving? Which other activities might be deemed too risky for the populace? Which foods might be considered unfit for consumption? Which freedoms that we now enjoy might be deemed too dangerous to be exercised in a “modern society?”
Most of us agree that trans fats and sugary drinks are bad for us. Many of us, when given the choice, opt for paper over plastic. When we have kids, we know we’re not supposed to feed them a steady diet of McDonalds. The fact is, we’re grown-ups. We’re capable of making our own decisions and when the government steps in and starts choosing for us it’s not only patronizing, it’s dangerous. It may just be styrofoam to-go containers and high-fructose corn syrup today, but unless we assert ourselves and reclaim our autonomy, by the time we realize what’s happened, there might not be any decisions left for us to make.