all the time
house of representatives
DECEMBER 5, 1996
Now that we know that 30 children have been killed by air bags, maybe
there is some hope that we will stop and think about the trade-offs
involved in "safety" campaigns by the government. There are also reports
that the new and cleaner-burning gasoline mandated by authorities in
California has caused an increase in gasoline tank leaks and cars
bursting into flames.
It is not just automobile safety that can be dangerous. There are
vaccines which save lives but also cause brain damage and death to some
children. Getting rid of asbestos from buildings can be more dangerous
than leaving it there and cleaning up some contaminated sites can create
more dangers to the workers involved than the remote risks to people
living in the vicinity.
It should not be a surprise to anyone that safety involves trade-offs,
since everything else in life does. But hysterical campaigns against
this or that danger seldom pause to discuss the cost of safety -- not
just the cost in money, but in lives.
The saga of the air bag is all too typical of politicized crusades. All
questions about its own safety were brushed aside. Any hesitations or
objections on the part of automobile manufacturers were denounced as
"stalling" and putting corporate greed ahead of human lives.
Researchers inside the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
whose results did not fit the crusade were squelched and threatened with
disciplinary action. The former agency head and leading crusader for air
bags, Joan Claybrook, dismissed the automobile manufacturers' questions
about their safety for children as just an attempt to undermine public
confidence in these safety devices.
The whole atmosphere surrounding "safety" campaigns is that of a
crusade of the righteous against the wicked. Ralph Nader pioneered this
approach more than 30 years ago, in a campaign which destroyed the
automotive reputation of the Corvair and set the stage for the creation
of a large and growing "safety" bureaucracy in Washington.
The Naderite line is that we need noble saviors and government
bureaucracies to protect us from corporations that will otherwise get us
killed in their own blind pursuit of profits. What is remarkable -- in
fact, incredible -- is that virtually no one in the media or in academia
has checked out this self-serving vision against easily obtainable
For example, during the era of unbridled "corporate greed," the
fatality rate in automobiles declined far more than it has during the
more recent era of noble saviors. During the era of "corporate greed,"
DDT saved far more lives than have ever been lost from pesticide
residues -- and the banning of DDT has led to a huge resurgence of
As for greed, greed for power and bureaucratic empires can be at least
as deadly to the public as greed in the private sector. In fact, it can
be deadlier because it is the greed of a monopoly, while no private
corporation can expect to survive a record of turning out products that
are less safe than those of its competitors.
Moreover, private corporations cannot expect to have the kind of media
gullibility toward their claims that Nader and the Naderites do.
Virtually no one in the mainstream media has pointed out how the safety
saviors have sacrificed lives in their ever-escalating demands for more
miles per gallon, which means lighter cars and heavier casualties in
automobile accidents. How is that for sacrificing lives to greed -- in
this case, greed for power?
None of this means that there should be no safety regulations. What it
does mean is that we have to look at safety regulations in terms of the
actual trade-offs involved in each particular case, not let ourselves be
stampeded by cries of "clean air!" or "toxic wastes!"
Clean air and clean water, like greater fuel economy, are blank checks
for never-ending expansions of government power and bureaucratic
empires. There is no logical stopping place for either, especially when
those who impose the requirements pay no price for doing so, while the
rest of us pay a price in both money and lives.
You can usually get rid of the worst stuff at a reasonable cost, but
when you start trying to remove ever more minute traces of substances
whose harm is increasingly questionable, the point comes where common
sense would say "stop" if you were spending your own money or watching
the other trade-offs involved. But there is no such point when you are a
politician, bureaucrat or crusader. For them, there is a safety blitz on