Killing Consumers With Compassion

Published October 13, 1995

The week of October 22-28 is National Consumers Week. Various business and civic groups, led by the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs, will take this opportunity to tell us about the “power” of informed consumers and our “duty” to demand an end to fraud, price gouging, and misleading sales practices. They will warn us of the deceptions and misbehavior of conniving business owners and entire industries, and they will sing the praises of the laws, government agencies, and private-sector watchdogs that protect our “right to service.”

Once upon a time, National Consumers Week was an innocent exercise in public education. Today, it serves only to confuse and mislead us. To start with, why is a government agency sponsoring National Consumers Week? Who believes, nowadays, that government agencies know anything about respecting consumers? Those government agencies with which most consumers come into contact — the post office, courts, and motor vehicle department — are contemporary icons for just the opposite of good service.

The government’s involvement in National Consumers Week is doubly ironic because government itself is often the consumer’s worst enemy. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) needlessly delays approval of thousands of life-saving and life-extending drugs, resulting in thousands of unnecessary deaths each year. This “death by regulation” occurs in the name of greater product safety, but the deaths it prevents each year pale in comparison to the number it causes.

Another example of the threat to consumers posed by government is the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard, or CAFE. The government requires that the cars sold in the U.S. each year achieve a certain average minimum number of miles per gallon of fuel consumed. To meet that standard, automobile manufacturers build cars that are lighter and smaller than they otherwise would be. But lighter and smaller cars are less safe, resulting in more deaths on the nation’s highways each year.

Researchers at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, D.C., estimate that CAFE standards kill as many as 4,509 people each year — approximately 12 people every day of the year. This carnage is caused by a government regulation passed during the “energy crisis” of the 1970s, a “crisis” we now know was caused by other government regulations controlling the price of gasoline.

The irony surrounding National Consumers Week extends to the so-called “consumer organizations” that claim to defend consumers’ rights. One such organization, calling itself “Food & Water Incorporated,” runs full-page ads in the New York Times declaring that pesticides “are so powerful, and so toxic that we are literally killing ourselves with them. In fact, thousands of men, women and children die every year.” This would certainly be consumer information worth knowing if it were true. But it’s not.

Dr. Robert Hollingsworth, director of the Michigan State University Pesticide Research Center, says “I don’t know of any evidence that one person in the United States has ever been injured by consuming food treated with pesticide residues. Not a single person.” And here’s what former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop has said on the subject: “Consumer advocates, however well intentioned, continue to tell us that dangerous, cancer-causing pesticides are present in our food and that we and our children are at extreme risk. This is simply not true. There is no food safety crisis.”

The sponsors of National Consumers Week, it seems, are as likely to be anti-consumer as pro-consumer. This is reason enough to be skeptical about celebrating National Consumers Week. But there is an even more compelling reason: Consumers are in charge of the marketplace every single minute of every day, regardless of (and sometimes despite) what government and “consumer organizations” do. This is, in fact, one of the great truths of our free-market system.

Consumers in the U.S. have the power to take down any company that fails to satisfy or respond to their needs. Thousands of companies go out of business every year because they fail to anticipate and fulfill the needs of consumers. Simultaneously, thousands of new companies rise to take their place, supplying us with a constant supply of new and improved products at reasonable prices.

Since the power of consumers is a permanent and natural part of the economic order, who needs the government to set aside one week each year devoted to consumers? Not consumers, since they benefit from free markets all year ’round. The true beneficiaries are the government agencies and “consumers organizations” that are singled out for attention and praise. National Consumers Week helps them raise money from gullible consumers, and helps ensure that their tax appropriations are renewed.

National Consumers Week, in short, consists of equal parts fraud and farce. It’s time we exercise our real power as informed consumers and demand an end to this silly and misleading annual propaganda campaign.

Joseph L. Bast is president of The Heartland Institute, a nonprofit research organization headquartered in Palatine, Illinois.