Government Safety Regulation: Kind Mother or Big Brother?

Jeff Mosenkis, a freelance producer with Freakonomics Radio, holds a Ph.D. in psychology and comparative human development.

Government Safety Regulation: Kind Mother or Big Brother?
By Jeff Mosenkis

On the same day last week, news stories broke about two different parts of government demonstrating two different ideological approaches to regulating consumer safety. In the first, the FDA came out with rules standardizing the labeling of sunscreen, after 33 years of deliberation.

(Stockbyte)

Presumably, the reasoning behind making sure the claims on sunscreens are clear and uniform across different products (like the standardized nutrition information on food packaging) is to allow consumers to make better decisions for themselves. Let’s call this the Kind Mother approach.We are given information that strongly hints at which is the right choice, but ultimately are still able to decide for ourselves.

At the same time, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has directed its staff to draft regulations governing the safety of table saws. An estimated 40,000 people are injured every year when hands, fingers or other body parts find their way into the path of a table saw blade. Inventor Stephen Gass has come up with a technology he calls SawStop, which senses if the spinning blade is starting to contact human skin and slams the blade to a halt within a few thousandths of a second. Gass even puts his finger into the path of the blade to demonstrate. See the video here.

The CPSC is apparently considering requiring that all new table saws come equipped with the SawStop technology, thus increasing the price of the product. This falls into the Big Brother approach, where government decides what’s best for us, and leaves us no choice in the matter. In the case of table saws, the industry argues that the status quo serves the market well – Gass has a company which has sold SawStop-equipped table saws to thousands, while those who don’t want it are free to buy others.

So for sunscreen, the requirements are to label in a uniform way so consumers can understand how best to protect themselves, but for table saws, the CPSC is considering making the SawStop mandatory, in the same way that seatbelts went from being optional to required.

While there are differences between the cases, the question of the general approach remains: should government be intervening to keep people safe, or just providing information to allow consumers to make their own decisions?

One example of the disappointing results of the informational approach are the calorie counts required in New York for many chain restaurant menus.  Studies have found that providing this information doesn’t seem to change fast food eating patterns. (Although it did make a small difference at Starbucks. Paper here.)

Broad requirement approaches to regulation can also have negative consequences. The FAA still allows infants on airplanes to ride in their parents’ laps rather than in their own safety seats because the added expense of requiring families to buy another ticket would push more families into driving, which is still more dangerous.

So do we just need information and freedom to choose, or a benevolent power deciding what’s good for us?

Neither approach is best for all situations, so in which domains can we be trusted to make the right choice given full information, and in which are we better off having the best option chosen for us? And lastly, when is it still our right to be able to make the “wrong” choice if we so choose?

 

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  1. Jaime says:

    I should point out there is a clear difference between both cases here (the sunscreen and saws), a difference which results in a somewhat short-sighted scentence:
    “While there are differences between the cases, the question of the general approach remains: should government be intervening to keep people safe, or just providing information to allow consumers to make their own decisions?”
    In the sunscreen case the goverment is helping keep the user safe by letting the consumer (using the word consumer here as someone who adquires the goods) know the risk and getting rid of some info asymetry. This works because the user and consumer are the same person, and are looking for the same set of characteristics from the product.
    On the other hand, having worked in several workshops operating dangerous machinery throughout my life, I have never come across any instance of the user of the machine being the same entity as the consumer (again, using the definition of the person adquiring the goods). This places 2 different set of interests on the table, and leaves the user unprotected from the consumer. As such a different legal framework needs to be stablished to protect the user, which ultimately is what matters.

    The ultimate goal of both laws is to protect the user. There is no discrepancy in goverment policy here if you ask me.

    Oh and I still think forcing people to purchase a specific safety product is dumb, but agree with the need to enforce the purchase of such safety enhancing tools.

    P.S: I understand that my argument leaves a gray area concerning people who purchase saws for personal use but I am willing to bet a whole euro that the amount of man-hours spent on those saws sold to businessess are MUCH greater than the man-hours spent on personal use saws.

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    • Matthew de Verteuil says:

      Absolutely well put. I had not considered the fact that the user and the consumer were not likely to be the same in the table saw case.

      My worry is the fact that the name “SawStop” sounded like something that would be patented, which would basically be a government mandated monopoly granted to a private entity.

      That aside, mandating safety, especially for those in these particularly unsafe jobs, is a good thing.

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    • Teage W. says:

      I can completely understand the wish to grant workers a safe environment and to that end would not have issue with a regulatory movement under OSHA or another workplace safety organization. However what we are talking about here is an overall removal of any consumer’s right to make a decision. We should not remove a choice from one group unnecessarily in order to regulate another. I would be completely opposed to this type of regulation and feel that the money spent to create, distribute, and haphazardly enforce this type of regulation could be better spent elsewhere.

      Yet another point to chew on is this. If this regulation were to take place there would be fewer people who would produce and sell table saws, prices would inevitably increase and your average homeowner or small time handy man may not be in a position to purchase one when it would be the ideal tool for a given job. As a side effect, there are people out there who are using something like a wormdrive or circular saw on a pair of saw horses to cut a sheet of plywood. Anyone who has done this knows that this is not the most ideal situation and could pose greater risk than a table saw as you are holding the saw and moving it across the wood as opposed to the blade being in one spot.

      Our government should never (again, my opinion) regulate us “for our own good”. Laws are best to protect us from each other not ourselves.

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  2. Infant in lap says:

    We don’t require kids on a plane to wear a seat belt, because how many times was a child injured last year on an airplane while sitting in a parent’s lap? However, if we have one incident of a horrific scene of an infant becoming a brutal victim to this, legislation will pass immediately. Kind of like the swimming pool/ owning a gun theory.

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  3. Clancy says:

    What are the Intellectual Property issues surrounding the StopSaw? It sounds like Gass has patented this technology and sells saws equipped with it. Do other manufacturers have to license the technology from Gass? Is that part of what is holding them back, or driving up the price of the saw? Will the new regulation be a huge windfall for Gass? Or could the new rule also require Gass to license the patent to all saw manufacturers for a reasonable fee?

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  4. AaronS says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • James says:

      Except that your smoking example really doesn’t apply to this situation, as the intent there is not to protect the smokers from the consequences of their decision to smoke, but to protect the rest of us from assault by the smokers’ fumes. So it’d be a better parallel if the government were requiring the SawStop technology on chainsaws in order to safeguard the population against chainsaw wielding maniacs.

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      • Michael Cassidy says:

        Well there is probably the intent to relieve the government of having to deal with the sick smokers. While maybe not directly for their benefit it has that purpose.

        Also it was a table saw not a chainsaw. The difference being is that it stationary and likely used by a great many people. I used one in highschool, they exists in hundreds of tradeschools and the like. The fact is tablesaws are used by large population of the public. So it is closer to smoking than you may have originally thought.

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      • James says:

        Yes, I know what table saws and chain saws are: I own and use both. You apparently missed the point I was trying to make, which is that (leaving out chainsaw wielding maniacs) people ordinarily don’t go around cutting other people with either type of saw. So the SawStop requirement would be to protect the saw user from himself. Second-hand smoke laws aren’t intended to protect the smoker (even if they do have that result), their intent is to protect the rest of us from the smokers.

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  5. Ross says:

    I’m having trouble drawing parallels to the two products discussed here. With sunscreen, they are just ensuring the user clearly understands the difference between two brands and their effectiveness. But, a person can still go outside without applying any. They are giving those who are conscious of the dangers of UV rays better information, but those who disregard the risk won’t benefit from it.

    The SawStop really is of minimal use for experience table saw operators. They understand the danger and don’t put themselves at risk in first place. It is the occasional handyman the law will protect at the cost of everyone else. Which group is bigger? I don’t know. Would someone who doesn’t make their livelihood with their tools want to spend the extra money on the SawStop option? I don’t know. I suspect they would estimate how often they would use the table saw and figure the piece of mind to not be worth the ticket price because of the low usage rate. “I don’t need to put my seat belt on, I’m just driving a couple of blocks.”

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  6. Joshua Northey says:

    1. “So do we just need information and freedom to choose, or a benevolent power deciding what’s good for us?”

    You aren’t going to be able to take some one size fits all approach no matter how intellectually appealing that is. Different cases require different regulatory paradigms.

    2. “Neither approach is best for all situations, so in which domains can we be trusted to make the right choice given full information, and in which are we better off having the best option chosen for us? ”

    Well one thing to consider is that the “kind mother” approach has varying effectiveness depending on people’s sensitivity to information in different situations. In cases where people are not sensitive to information (e.g. mortgages) you need the “big brother” approach to avoid bad outcomes. With mortgages the outcomes are simply too far away for most people to properly understand the impact on their future selves. I think the “information” approach works best when the outcomes are immediate. People are good at calculating immediate outcomes. When the outcomes are 5 years from now you might need to steer people in the right direction more forcefully.

    I think you simply do some utilitarian calculus. Do what works! Granted the actual data on what decision people are likely to make, what the true outcomes of various decisions will be, and secondary effects in the economy are going to be difficult to come by/huge points of contention.

    3. “And lastly, when is it still our right to be able to make the “wrong” choice if we so choose?”

    Rights aren’t metaphysical entities! So your “right” begins and ends where society says it does. Now if you are asking where is a smart place for society to set that “right”, well I would say you are going to once again circle back to pragmatic balancing. Certainly if your wrong decisions are harming many others, or placing a large burden/cost on society your behavior should be regulated.

    On the other hand if your poor decisions are just placing costs on you, and not costs that you can expect society to compensate you for, well go ahead.

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  7. Jackson says:

    To borrow a tactic from Milton Freidman, I’ll start with the last question first. Who is to say what the “wrong” choice is? Sure, in this discussion of table saws a saw with SawStop is clearly safer than one without. But the question cannot be strictly, “What is safer?” with no regard for cost. Nothing in this world is completely safe, so we can always make everything safer. The question is one of trade-offs, where companies and consumers make decisions based on how much the additional safety is worth on a case-by-case basis. The point here is that if the additional safety is not worth the additional cost to many people, they should not ever be forced to pay for it. Each person is capable of making a choice in this matter, and for each person it can be the “right” choice.

    (Jaime your point about the consumer and the user not being the same would fall into the category of worker safety regulation, and this issue should not be dealt with by taking products off the general consumer market)

    To fully address the question of when people should have the right to make the “wrong” decision: it should be within our ability to make the any decision anytime we choose, so long as doing so does not affect other people’s ability to do the same. In both the case of the sunscreen and the saw, the government has no right to step in like Big Brother and make the decision for us.

    To address another point, the author comments on the “disappointing results of the informational approach” by referencing the fact that people’s eating habits didn’t change when faced with calorie counts in fast food restaurants. But to whom are they disappointing? More importantly, does it matter that some people are disappointed? Maybe the author feels that people should lead a healthy lifestyle, and he is personally disappointed that people haven’t yet changed their ways. The results should be irrelevant. Providing consumers with enough information and education to make their own choices is what matters.

    To quote Evelyn Beatrice Hall on Voltaire, “I may disapprove of that Big Mac you’ve got there, but I will defend to the death your right to super size it.” Now I may be paraphrasing there, but the point remains. Just because somebody thinks that a choice is “wrong” or “disappointing” shouldn’t affect the freedom of the individual to make that choice.

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    • Joshua Northey says:

      I agree in principle with some of what you said, but I think you are missing a key point. This line:

      “it should be within our ability to make the any decision anytime we choose, so long as doing so does not affect other people’s ability to do the same.”

      is really really doing 99% of your work for you. And I think in most cases it works out WAY WAY WAY messier and WAY WAY WAY more regulation filled than your general post would indicate.

      e.g. People should definitely be free to choose the sunscreen we want, but if letting them choose crappy sunscreen leads to me paying for their cancer treatment 20 years from now, maybe not. Well don’t pay for their treatments you say! But that might not be a choice we have at our disposal.

      Until you are willing to let people starve and die in the streets from economic deprivation, or conscript them into a forced work subsistence lifestyle (which as a society are manifestly not) we are going to have to be constantly intervening in things.

      Markets are very powerful things, but they are not all purpose tools, and they are not perfect. There are lots of cases where people make consistent and systematic errors, and it would be extremely foolish not to correct them out of principle. Likewise there are also times where there are simply better solutions to be had by abandoning market principles, and we shouldn’t turn away from those just because they infringe on liberty.

      Liberty is not the only value. It is an extremely important one, but it is not the only one. And treating it as such would quickly bring a society to ruin.

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  8. Marcus Kalka says:

    “Should government be intervening to keep people safe, or just providing information to allow consumers to make their own decisions?”

    This is perhaps the biggest economic question facing individuals and governments in this time period. Between the government and the market, I tend to more so trust the market. I believe the crux of the issue comes back to a blend of education, intelligence, and common sense. Should it be the role of the government to be a kind mother or big brother? Probably not. Nevertheless, the government has its own interests that may at times conflict with the market, and let’s face it, the government has the ability to look out for and take care of its own interests by influencing the market. For instance, with sunscreen a government may have an interest in preventing sun cancer and the associated health care costs. Or a government may have an interest in putting warning labels on cigarettes to prevent lung cancer and the associated health care costs. But in putting warnings on cigarettes, is the government acting like a “kind mother” or is it simply acting in its own interests? This comes back to a question of the purpose of government.

    Whether or not the government or the market is to be trusted for safety, I believe the crux of the question goes back to education, intelligence, and common sense. Of course, such a crux is one that is imperfect and developing/growing over time, but for now it seems to be the best we have. Yes, we don’t know everything, but with education we realize that it’s not good to be out in the sun all day without sunscreen just as we realize that cigarettes can cause lung cancer. With greater education, innovation, and efficiency in society, the need for government as a kind mother or a big brother seems to dissipate with time.

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    • BSK says:

      What a false dilemma! “Should government decide for us or help us decide?” Maybe government shouldn’t be involved at all! Is that not an option?

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      • Michael Cassidy says:

        Well that is clearly a bigger question than the article is even attempting to broach. I think most people accept that (good) governments are primarily designed to protect its people. At the most basic this is military, to encourage work and prevent anarchy you have criminal laws. To encourage business you have contract law.

        The question with government that you are driving at is where is the appropriate place to stop. You appear to be of the opinion that if an entire industry is selling products which are misleading for example sunscreen for which the fact that it is misleading (i.e. not adequately protecting you) may never be known by the consumer till too late is not its concern. I personally do not want to live in such a world. The point of this article is to raise a discussion on when and where it maybe appropriate and what the correct approach may be whether imposed or advisory, and perhaps even whether different cases require different approaches.

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