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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.


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?