The last few weeks have seen a hullabaloo over the inaccurate EPA gas mileage figures which, by law must be stickered on every new-car windshield. The same figures, not by law but by manufacturers' desire, are featured in most television car commercials.
It's a dreamy set up. If automobile makers lie in a television commercial, they'll have the Federal Trade Commission on them; but the knowing use of inaccurate information cranked out by the government brings with it legal immunity.
Using Uncle Sam as a shill to sell merchandise is an ancient practice dating back to the turn of the century and before. The question first arose with government inspection of meat. In the poorer sort of high-school history text, we are told that an aroused public , shocked at the sale of rotten beef by the big meat packers for our soldiers in the Spanish-American War, rose up and demanded reform and regulation.
The facts were different. While the taste of the stuff might have left something to be improved on, no big meat packers sold any rotten beef to the Army. It was a true then as it is now that nothing is such a bummer in the food business as palming off poisoned food on your customers. It also kills repeat business.
The major meat packers led the indignation parade demanding government inspection of beef in interstate commerce. The big packers' business had been damaged by fly-by-night competition selling bad meat in Europe. The situation had reached the point that a number of countries prohibited the importation of American meat. The packers wanted a federal inspection system so that the U.S. government could guarantee the quality to foreign customers who preferred their beefsteak without salmonella sauce.
The fight in Congress over the 1906 Law wasn't a battle between the reformist forces of consumerism and the Beef Trust, but over such questions as "Why should the people pay for the packers' inspection instead of the packers paying for their own inspection?" as Sen Alfred Beveridge asked at the time. The answer was because the Packers had the votes to stick the taxpayers with the cost of providing them with an invaluable advertising service.
The consequence of selling poisoned food are such that we must have inspection, even if the manufacturers can cash in on it. Of course, what we don't know is if the system actually keeps bad food off the market. We know it doesn't keep all of it off. Vide the recent cases of sales of spoiled roast beef. Nevertheless, who would care to stop the inspection of food to test how much of a difference it would make?
But how is the consumer served by the Department of Agriculture grading foodstuffs? why should the U.S government be grading the cut of meat we get at the Safeway or at the A&P! If Safeway thinks some of its beef is prime, why can't they label it on their own say-so? Moreover this kind of service extends to hundreds, it not thousands of products, If you pick up a can of olives and it says that the size of the edibles therein is colossal, that is a U.S. government grading term.
Nor is the trend toward backing away from such activities. The wine industry is pressing for new, exacting labeling regulations, a la that provided by the French government for its vintners. The purpose of course, is for an advertising and merchandising effort that will kick up the prices of certain wines which will now be special and expensive because Uncle Sam says they are.
All of this is to be done in the name of consumerism. When it comes to the consumer's health and safety we have no choice. Thus it's insane to permit dangerous microwave ovens to be sold at the appliance store, but should one of the manufacturers be allowed to use the government safety certification in its advertising as it does?
Government action beyond minimal health and safety ultimately injuries consumers by misleading them, as in the EPA gas mileage case, and or dampening their motivation to look after themselves. If people are constantly, although erroneously, told that ever vigilant Uncle Sam is spending his nights in the labs testing grading and checking out the merchandise, why should they give a thought to fending for themselves?
Why should they join volunteer consumer groups, whose membership now represents a fraction of the population so small it's three miles to the right of the decimal point.
By doing less the government may do more.