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Conservative Current


Thomas Sowell

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 facts.

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 deadly malaria.

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 every play.


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