Who’s watching over us?

January 22nd, 2010

I have often wondered about the need in this country for consumers to be protected by our federal government. We have a number of regulatory agencies that want to take care of the unsuspecting consumer so that unscrupulous companies can’t take advantage of us.

We have the Food and Drug Administration, Federal Trade Commission, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission that are augmented with non-profit organizations like the Better Business Bureau, National Consumer League, the Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America. All these groups are watching out for my safety.

All this protection has me a bit nervous. For one thing, I wonder why they are protecting me. In this day of almost unlimited information, what is it that I need protecting from. Sure a few companies might sell some stuff that is substandard, but if I check the web before I buy, I will know about these folks. It’s almost like I have acquired a new parent. Someone who has decided what is in my best interest and because they know better than me they will make sure I am not taken advantage of.

One of the problems with this way of thinking is that these organizations assume they know what’s right for me. I believe that for the most part they have good intention, But I wonder how they can know what’s best for me. Particularly, when I haven’t talked directly to any of these organizations. So what are they basing their criteria for what’s best on? Is there a belief that we can homogenize our needs as humans to the extent where a set of standards will fit everyone? So when someone decides for me what’s best, it might be good for me to know how they reached their decisions. Otherwise, I become a tranquilized couch potato that has lost touch with my world.

Now I can delegate my decisions to others if I like. That seems to be a bit contrary though to having a strong country of informed and accountable citizens.

The second thing that bothers me about all this protection is that it doesn’t seem to work in some important areas. For instance, who protected all those folks who got sub-prime loans whose interest rates skyrocketed after the first year? Or who has protected consumers from high bank charges or escalating interest rates on credit cards or consumer check cashing offices that effectively charge 300% interest? Or how about the rush to get H1N1 vaccine to market only to have hundreds of thousands of doses recalled?

It seems that the best protection for me and you is to be well-informed and acting deliberately. I have a good idea about I want, why its valuable to me and what I am willing to pay in terms of money and safety to get it. I am not advocating a time of letting everyone fend for themselves. I think guidelines are great and that standards are fine as long as there is transparency in the standard setting process and we only apply standardization for high risk public safety concerns.

This week’s Business Matters program on raw milk had me wonder why it was so important for the FDA to take care of me when I can make an informed decision about this product. I appreciate their input and accept a requirement for consumer labeling, but if public safety is the FDA’s concern why don’t they focus on alcoholism and tobacco addition?

So let’s be more informed. Let’s reduce the need to be taken care of. I have a sense that we will all feel safer if we do.

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