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Upton Sinclair's famous novel, The Jungle, made it pretty clear that consumers need to be protected, and since the 1920s consumer protection has become a recognized role of government. Should government play a more significant role now? Based on news reports, it would seem so. Bad drugs, tainted food, poisonous toys, dangerous cars, even deadly pet foods--all would suggest the need for more vigilant consumer protection.
One problem that has been identified in the government's ongoing battle to keep harmful goods out of the marketplace is the woeful lack of inspectors. Too few employees are responsible for inspecting products and the sites where they are manufactured. Imported goods are not adequately inspected before they enter the country. When inspections fail, products are frequently recalled, but often times that happens too late to save people's lives or prevent their illnesses and injuries. The government at all levels could protect consumers more effectively by simply hiring enough employees to do the job.
I think there is a real need for more information to be published about the myriad of products that are available to consumers. This may of course bring government into conflict with big businesses, especially if the information they are publishing does not present products in a good light. However, there are real issues in today's consumer world with processed foods containing a batallion of various chemicals and additives with varying degrees of usefulness to the human body. Greater information and awareness raising about these 'additions' is one thing the government, in my opinion, should be focusing on.
We might consider both sides of ths issue. The people I know who are opposed to government having a role in consumer protection argue that there is a basic value to having free choices among goods. Governmental regulation of goods limits one's choice of purchases and is interference in the free operation of the market. This is both an economic argument (free and unregulated markets are good for economic growth) and a political or moral one (people have a right to have the most free and broad set of choices available). Seconarily, there are those who tack on a private ownership argument: governmental regulation of the "public good" interferes with private property rights. For example, regulation of waterways or national parks is viewed as diametrically opposed to the freedom of property owners to use or take care of their land as they see fit.
The counterargument is that because information is never perfect and because businesses have an interest in concealing information about problems in their products, the government needs to have a role in regulating products. Tobacco is a good example of this; it has a seriously detrimental role in people's health, and tobacco companies had an interest in hiding evidence about its health effects. For public goods such as parks and waterways, there is an interest in governmental regulation of pollution and other harm to the public good. The argument there is that a business or individual should not be allowed to benefit from actions that pollute common goods that others use - in essence, they shouldn't be allowed to make others pay for their gains. The issue of hydrofracking for natural gas might be an example here; the clean water available to an entire community may be polluted for the benefit of natural gas companies and those individuals who lease their land for fracking to occur.
A very recent example of both sides of the debate is the consideration of food dyes by the FDA. There is some evidence that artificial dyes (like red 40 - look at ingredient labels in the store to see how widespread these dyes are used) may contribute to hyperactivity in some children. But spokespeople for the industry suggest that the entire food-dye industry should not be punished for the ill effects dyes have on a few (I've provided links below). In a case like this, the dye is not going to kill a child, but it will have behavioral effects in some children, and parents could just be aware of foods that contain the dye. So should it be regulated? It's not so clear.
Against regulatig food dye:
The initial article about the FDA considering regulating food dye:
There certainly are two sides to this debate as the government sometimes has its own special interests involved. This certainly holds true regarding pharmaceuticals. In some areas where more scrutiny by the government is needed, there is not enough because of "deals."
No. But the state should also not be complicit in helping corporations profit from the public. I think that people are always going to be responsible for their own decisions but right now there are so many back-door deals that pave the way for or basically make certain companies profitable instead of others. If you are going to protect certain companies then you certainly have to also protect consumers.
If you have a real free market, then stop protecting consumers. As the previous poster mentioned in Upton Sinclair's book and others people point out the dangers of monopolies and overly powerful companies but if you look at the history of those companies, they almost always get to that point via government support. Look at our banking system today, the too big to fail problem was solved by... You guessed it, making the big banks even bigger!
So in the current environment sure, protect consumers. But ideally, they'd get out of both sides' pockets.
I think there needs to be a source of reliable and objective information that consumers can have available in order to make good decisions. If government can be an effective overseer to that information and have legal authority against unwarranted claims, then government oversight is necessary. Ultimately though, consumer's need to do their research and make the best decisions they can for their own health and safety.
What excellent answers and opinions so far! I agree that they are needed in the world we have, for there are too many special interests and special deals which often exist in complete disregard of consumer safety. The bottom line is all that matters. If we could erase it all and start over, give consumers the right and responsibility for protecting themselves. We are generally too lazy and too willing to trust what the government and big business tells us, often to our detriment.
I think people should be able to read and decide for themselves about a product. However, we see with alcohol and tobacco how people deal with information and warnings on labels. Some people take them seriously and others abuse their health. That said, any product should have information available for people to make their own decisions. There is nutritional information available to the public regarding foods we consume. However, I don't think the government should be able to decide what food choices a person makes. That is definitely up to the person.
Not at all...I'm largely in favour of limited government. When the State becomes involved in private industry, the economy declines.
Your question negates the fact that consumer protection protections are adminstered by the federal government. Federal law is supreme to state law, therefore every state must abide by all federal congressional legislation. Since 1972, The Consumer Products Safety Commission was created in order to unify consumer protections within the nation. The agency was primarily responsible for regulating product safety and prevent fraudulent advertising practices. It makes the most sense for the federal government to administer consumer protections for the simple fact that the alternative might result in different levels of protections depending upon which state a consumer purchased a good or service.
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