No oppressive government regulation needed for product safety

Article by Ian Huyett.


Most of the 4,000 Americans who die in fires each year are asphyxiated, often in their sleep, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Of the 30,000 Americans killed in car accidents in 2009, more than 6,000 were passengers and more than 4,000 were not even in a car, reports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

While no single factor caused these tragedies, one group could have acted to prevent the great majority of them. Our government has the power to regulate product safety. Had it been more rigorous, many of those who die in fires and car crashes each year might still be alive.

Our government permits architects to design houses so flammable that flames take five minutes to engulf them. It lets manufacturers produce vehicles that become mangled with relative ease and then allows us to barrel down highways at often lethal speeds.

The government could force builders to use ceramic tiles and thick concrete floors. It could order dealerships to sell only cars equipped with steel roll cages and nylon harnesses. It could set a national speed limit of 10 mph and mandate jail time for those who broke it. Imagine all the lives that could be saved.

Needless to say, Americans would find these regulations outrageous. Although we may emphasize safety, we consistently trade it for affordability, convenience, aesthetic value and, perhaps most importantly, the freedom to make decisions for ourselves.

In November 2010, the FDA banned Four Loko, a caffeinated alcoholic drink that it deemed unsafe. The agency’s decision punished those who consumed the drink responsibly to protect those who chose not to. Rather than let those who abused Four Loko learn from the consequences of their mistakes, the FDA imposed a personal choice on everyone who bought the drink.

Ironically, regulations imposed by the FDA in the name of saving lives can have the opposite effect. In the early 1990s, the FDA imposed a barrage of exhaustive regulations on medical devices. CT scanners and surgical lasers had to wait in line to receive FDA approval before they could be legally sold. Thousands of potentially life-saving tools languished in a bureaucratic abyss, sometimes for years, while patients that could have benefited from them suffered.

According to the book “Hazardous to Our Health? FDA Regulation of Health Care Products,” edited by Robert Higgs, many Americans traveled to Europe to receive treatments that had not yet been approved by the FDA. The United States lost business as medical device manufacturers began to relocate out of the country.

Getting the government out of product safety wouldn’t necessitate taking a manufacturer at its word. Looking closely at your TV, fan, lamp or toaster will likely reveal the “UL” logo of Underwriters Laboratories. Companies choose to bring their products to this private safety firm for testing because more retailers will carry a product that gets the lab’s stamp of approval.

A “UL” logo affords a guarantee that FDA approval does not. If the lab approves dangerous products, its reputation will suffer and it will lose business to competing firms. If the FDA approves dangerous products, it can force businesses to patronize it anyway.

If a testing firm can’t get the job done quickly, it can use its profit to expand — or let rivals take its business. Conversely, there is only one FDA, and it has all the time in the world. When it does expand, it must be at the expense of taxpayers. If the FDA is not timely, businesses have nowhere else to go — except out of the country. Like the mafia, the FDA maintains a monopoly that allows no challengers.

Government regulation of product safety imposes one unilateral edict on a population with a diverse array of priorities. It allows the few to make decisions about the bodies and personal lives of the many. It creates unelected agencies that operate with impunity, withholding vital services from those who could benefit from them.

The notion that government can solve our problems enables it to cause new ones. Maybe what we should really be regulating is the government itself.

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