Recent history shows the cost of 'hands-off' government

Even after years of a laissez-faire ideology that allowed businesses to pillage the economy, the idea of government intervention makes a lot of Americans nervous. In a recent Gallup Poll, a majority of respondents agreed with the statement that the government currently is "trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses."

That response is partly due to essential elements of the American character, which celebrates independence, self-reliance and the pioneering spirit. It reveals a healthy strain that encourages creativity and overcome-the-odds resilience.

But the distrust of government is also due to a less healthy phenomenon — 30 years of government-bashing by conservative politicians and media personalities. Ronald Reagan's mantra — government is the problem, not the answer — has become an all-serving ideology in certain precincts on the right.

Happily, none of that has interfered with a logical and long-needed restoration of government regulation in consumer products. While the controversies over major domestic policy initiatives — health care reform, regulation of Wall Street, an energy bill — have dominated headlines and airwaves, a small platoon of President Obama's appointees have been quietly getting back into the business of regulating toys, swimming pool drains and herbal supplements, among many other items. Agencies such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which made placating industry its focus during the Bush years, are back in business.

The restoration of consumer protections didn't come soon enough to save Americans victimized by tainted peanut butter, dangerous toys or pharmaceuticals pushed to market too soon. Just last year, hundreds of people were sickened — and several died — after they ate contaminated peanut products made in plants owned by Peanut Corp. of America.

The peanut fiasco, like the Wall Street meltdown, was the result of an ideology that allowed corporate America to do pretty much as it pleased. Businesses were allowed to police themselves, a laughable concept that suggests business executives are exempt from the human foibles, such as greed, that plague the rest of us.

The awakening of the federal regulatory apparatus comes after a tsunami of recalls of defective products, from cars to bunk beds. While a fiery August car crash that may have been caused by faulty floor mats has focused attention on Toyota's massive recall of 3.8 million vehicles, many of the recalls have been aimed at children's products. Unfortunately, recalls usually occur after users have been hurt, the classic case of closing the barn door too late.

Stricter federal regulations wouldn't stop all defective products from reaching the market, of course, especially if the manufacturer is unaware of any danger. And even with a White House that favors regulation, consumer-safety agencies will find it tough to keep up with all the imports made in countries such as China, which have few safety laws. But tough standards and more inspections would probably make manufacturers more cautious, serving as insurance against those who break the rules intentionally.

That was the case with the now-defunct Peanut Corp. of America, which owned several plants, including one in Blakely, Ga. According to the Food and Drug Administration, plant officials knew that some of their peanut products were contaminated with salmonella but sold them anyway. They had a financial incentive to do so, but fear of getting caught may have caused them to rerun the cost-benefit analysis.

Conservatives would argue that officials of the company will pay a price anyway, since they have been targeted in criminal investigations and civil lawsuits. But wouldn't it have been better to try to prevent the illnesses and deaths that followed salmonella poisoning?

Most Americans would, I think, answer "yes" to that. The reflexive distrust of government doesn't hold up when Americans are asked about government programs from which they benefit. How many seniors upset about "socialized" medicine would give up Medicare?

What kind of response would a pollster get if he or she posed the following question: Should the government impose regulations to protect you from defective products? I'd bet on overwhelming support for that proposition.

Cynthia Tucker is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at cynthia@ajc.com.

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