Puritanism was (somewhat unfairly) described many decades ago by H.L. Mencken, the cynical “sage of Baltimore,” as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

Today, however, we labor under the ministrations of “New Puritans,” busybody liberals who suffer from the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy without government supervision.

Government has its proper sphere, but when it meddles in people’s daily lives via the well-intentioned tyranny called “The Nanny State,” it is time to rein it in — hard.

Unfortunately, that’s not easily accomplished these days. We live in an age when the urge to meddle in minor issues (while letting major ones slide) seems ingrained in many “public servants” who are really public scolds.

The chief national representative of buttinsky-ism is Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York (Forbes’ 13th-richest man in the world, with $27 billion in assets). He has richly earned the ironic title of “Nurse Bloomberg” with his campaigns against the sale of large sodas (recently interrupted by a state judge, whose verdict is being appealed), or selling popcorn and milkshakes in theaters or using salt on restaurant meals.

Most notably, hizzoner lives under the full-time protection of armed guards but is perhaps the country’s most prominent advocate for denying ordinary, non-billionaire citizens the right to carry firearms for self-protection.

He’s not alone in that hypocrisy, of course. And the Nanny State isn’t limited to New York City. Symptoms of it appeared in Portland recently with efforts by local New Puritans to implement a number of “reforms.”

First, the city just passed its third smoking ban, expanding it from indoor public spaces and athletic fields to include parks, plazas and “open spaces.”

Sure, tobacco is deadly, at least for most heavy users. But that doesn’t stop these bans from being Nannyesque. If tobacco use kills you, why not make it illegal, as we do for other drugs that aren’t even lethal? However, we all know why its sale is still permitted. Government profits from it via extortionate levels of taxation.

So liberals pat themselves on the back about their public-spiritedness with laws that harass smokers while still keeping the cash flow moving. Isn’t there a name for people who make money selling drugs to addicts?

But that’s not all. Last week, under the headline “Portland launches effort to ban polystyrene cups, plastic bags,” we read about a new panel of busybodies bearing the perfectly New Puritan name of Green Packaging Working Group.

Alas, it’s not an effort to promote shamrock-decorated bags on St. Paddy’s Day, but is instead aimed at containers favored by people who like their coffee hot and their groceries packaged in bags that are 1) recyclable and 2) easily adaptable to other uses, such as carrying or storing loose items, lining wastebaskets or removing Fido’s street deposits.

I won’t belabor the cup issue — those who have burned their hands with coffee in a paper cup, or had their hot drinks quickly grow cold, know how foolish it would be to ban foam cups — but the plastic bag subject is actually interesting.

That’s because the commonly offered replacement for them isn’t paper bags (which are not only recyclable, but made from a renewable resource), but personally owned cloth bags.

Like most unexamined ideas, however, cloth bags sound good but have serious pitfalls.

Under the headline, “The Disgusting Consequences of Plastic-Bag Bans,” a Feb. 4 column on Bloomberg.com (ah, sweet irony!) noted that San Francisco, one of the first places to adopt a plastic-bag ban, also reports that prior to the ban, such bags accounted for only 0.6 percent of litter in the city. Not only was the problem miniscule, the plastic-bag industry supports 30,000 jobs that a widespread ban would put at risk.

Most interesting of all, cloth bags can be hazardous to our health. As the column reported, “In a 2011 study, four researchers examined reusable bags in California and Arizona and found that 51 percent of them contained coliform bacteria. … Seventy-five percent of (users) said they keep meat and vegetables in the same bag. When bags were stored in hot trunks for two hours, the bacteria grew tenfold.”

And there’s more: “That study also found, happily, that washing the bags eliminated 99.9 percent of the bacteria. It undercut even that good news, though, by finding that 97 percent of people reported they never wash their bags.”

Other studies found food-borne illness and death rates growing in cities that banned plastic bags, or revealed that the environmental impact from making enough cloth bags for everyone to use and then washing and drying them all weekly would be higher than that of producing plastic bags.

Mandating cloth bags, however, would make the New Puritans feel better about themselves, and that’s what really counts. Isn’t it?

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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