Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Futility of Safety Regulations,FDA and CPSC

On the Dec. 26th Detroit Free Press editorial page was an op-ed by congressman John Dingell who represents Dearborn Michigan. I can't link to it because it is now in the paper's archive which requires money to access and I'm cheap. Mr. Dingell laments the sad state of consumer protection recently provided by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). He lists what he sees as failures of these agencies:

"With over 500 products and million of pounds of food recalled this year, it is no wonder U.S. consumers are nervous."

[...]

"To date this year, more than 20 million toys have been recalled because of high lead content and other hazards--including one toy containing chemicals that, when ingested, have the effect of a date-rape drug.
Earlier this month, the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center released the results of a study in which it tested more than 1,200 toys and baby products--most of them purchased in Michigan.
The center found that 35% of the toys tested contained lead, half at a level above the allowable federal standard. Only 28% of the toys tested were free from hazardous materials, including lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). This means that more than two in every three toys tested contained one or more of these poisonous substances."

He also shows how understaffed the CPSC is and how "overburdened" the FDA is:

"Though the value of all imports increased by 67% from 2000-06, the CPSC now operates
with half the staff it employed nearly three decades ago. Today, just 15 CPSC inspectors police the millions of toys and products entering the United States. By one CPSC commissioner's estimates, less than 1% of all imported products are properly inspected.
The FDA is also overburdened, able to inspect less that 1% of all food imports. With
13% of our food supply arriving from other countries, current inspection levels are
unacceptable and dangerous."

So what is Congressman Dingell's solution?

"On Nov. 1, I joined my colleagues Reps. Bobby Rush, D-Ill, Joe Barton, R-Texas, and
Cliff Stearns, R-Florida., in introducing the Consumer Product Safety Modernization Act."

[...]

"This legislation provides the funding the CPSC needs to hire additional staff and modernize its testing lab. It also increases the panel of commissioners from two to five and provides the tools and flexibility necessary to better protect America's consumers--and America's kids."

It seems to me Mr. Dingell is evading four facts of reality.
First, there is no such thing as completely safe.
Second, no organization will ever be able to inspect the millions of products in the market.
Third, it is not the responsibility of government to protect citizens from unwise or unsafe decisions.
Fourth, the congressman is practicing a double standard and setting up future generations to be victims of the same failures.

Now lets look at these four evasions. First, there is no such thing as completely safe. Safe is a relative term. All products have some chemicals in them that could be harmful to humans at high enough doses but which are harmless at low doses. Even the FDA's "safe" threshold is many times higher than the actual harmful level to humans. Needless to say, the one toy that had the chemical that acted like a date-rape drug should result in law suits by Americans against the foreign manufacturer. But I didn't see Mr. Dingell calling for this. This whole idea of government provided safety leads to the second evasion.

Second, no organization or group of same can make everything safe for everyone else. It's not going to happen. If the FDA can only inspect 1% of all food imports, then it is not the FDA that's making us safe. Shut them down. They're ineffective big time. Also, presumably, to inspect all imported goods, that part of the FDA would have to be expanded by 99%. By the same standard, the CPSC estimates that only 1% of imported products are inspected. Well, if so, then it's not the CPSC that's keeping us safe either. Shut them down too for the same reasons. Can you imagine a private corporation surviving on 1% efficiency?

Third, it is not the job of government to provide safety for everyone from everything. Our Constitutional guarantees of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" means that every person has the right to judge what is in his own interest, and has the freedom to act on that judgement so long as he does not infringe on the same rights of others.

In such an atmosphere, people are left free to make rational and irrational decisions and to enjoy or suffer the consequences of those actions. In this way such a society begets a learned citizenry. Decisions that sustain and advance life will be rewarded and recorded in the popular literature. So will decisions that will threaten or harm life. Both what works and what doesn't will be recorded and from that record future generations will be able to learn.

But not in a regulated society. Such a society is one in which the judgements of a few regulators are substituted for the judgements of the citizens and then forced on those citizens at the point of a regulatory gun. The regulators do not explicitly say to the populace "Do not think about this subject. We'll do your thinking for you." But that is the exact consequence of regulatory action. When the responsibility for one's own welfare is assumed by a second or third party, it is human nature that one will do that much less thinking about it. I once questioned an acquaintance on why he didn't seem to know what his Senator was doing regarding a certain topic. His response was "If I have to concern myself with that, what do I need him for?" By trying to protect everyone from everything, Dingell et al are creating not a learned citizenry but a dumbed down one. The congressman and colleagues are in denial of this reality.

Fourth, Mr. Dingell is practicing a double standard. It does not occur to him that all those reasons he cited as regulatory failures are in fact good reasons to abolish those agencies entirely and/or privatize them. The alleged reason usually given for government regulations is that private companies failed in some way so the government must step in. But when the government fails on an even bigger scale, it becomes unthinkable to take that responsibility away from them. This is a double standard.

To put it another way, if a handful of government inspectors is a good thing as Mr. Dingell obviously believes, and if more handfuls are a better thing as his legislation portends (or is that pretends?), then why not shoot for the optimum--300 million inspectors, i.e. an educated citizenry and get government out of the safety protection business altogether? Sure, some people will have to learn the hard way. So what? At least they'll learn. Those who refuse to learn will only hurt themselves. They will not have the power to force the rest of the population to support their irrationality. There is nothing more efficient about government. In fact the exact opposite is true. Private enterprise is always--when left alone--more efficient than government.

Lastly, I want to address the issue of integrity. In a private market, there would be a financial demand for integrity. In fact, there were businesses specializing in that commodity in the past. Just to name two off the top of my head, there was Good Housekeeping magazine and its Seal of Approval. Underwriter Laboratories made its money by charging corporations to test their products for safety--safety being a selling point for most products.

But the population at the time viewed those companies as an aid to rational decision making, not a substitute for it. People were learning about the world and becoming more adept at survival. Life expectancy was increasing. However, the massive expansion of regulatory agencies snuffed out that learning process. It made people dependent on the government for some of their survival needs. Government regulations in effect, tell people that they no longer have to evaluate products approved by it. One of the free market advisories, caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, has always been disdained by intellectuals and politicians. But that phrase really means let the buyer think. Mr. Dingell and crowd say no, he don't have to anymore. We'll take care of that.

Another evil is that government regulations tend to place all businessmen under the same cloak of suspicion. The honest businessman and the fly-by-nighter are treated by the government regulators as equal malfactors not to be trusted. This attitude is often explicitly conveyed to the public by intellectuals and politicians. I just heard John Edwards in a campaign speech, say he would protect Americans from greedy selfish corporations. In his mind businessmen are automatically evil. Under this onslaught, the public eventually adopts the same mistrust. An atmosphere is created where businessmen eventually realize that competition for a good reputation is no longer rewarded, that competition for government favors, licenses, permits and subsidies is. If there were no dishonest businessmen anywhere, such a regulatory atmosphere would create them.

In closing I just want to say that what many people don't seem to understand is that when one relinquishes responsibility for any part of one's survival, one is also surrendering control over that part of one's survival. It is freedom one is really relinquishing.
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