Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Government we Deserve or the Bill of Goods we've been Sold?

The cover story of the latest (September) issue of Consumer Reports should have a chilling effect on many of its readers (if it does not scare them to death first). The editors of this magazine have a rather good reputation for avoiding alarmism unless it really matters; but, when we realize that the market for dietary supplements, primarily for health reasons, clocked in at $26.7 billion in 2009, this can be counted as a case that "really matters." The title of the report is "Dangerous Supplements;" and its focus is summarized in a table entitled "Twelve supplements you should avoid," which provides columns for the name of the supplement, its "purported uses," and its actual possible dangers.

For me, however, the really scary part was the second paragraph of the report:

What consumers might not realize, though, is that supplement manufacturers routinely, and legally, sell their products without first having to demonstrate that they are safe and effective. The Food and Drug Administration has not made full use of even the meager authority granted it by the industry-friendly 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA).

In many ways this report is a corollary to a story Mother Jones ran back in the eighties about the ways in which the food processing industry tried to circumvent testing required by law. (The title of that story was "What This Country Needs is a Stronger White Rat," conveying the implication that test results are reviewed only for their numbers without any effort to get at what those numbers may mean.) The supplement case, however, is one in which testing may not even enter the equation, because the regulatory framework is too lax to address any questions of either numbers or meaning.

As a result, this paragraph broadens the scope of the message of the report. It is not just a story about things to avoid consuming because they can cause serious harm. It is also a story about the existential question of government regulatory authority. Countries whose underlying philosophy of governance is based on the concept of social democracy believe that citizens have a right to expect their government to protect them from harm, be it from warfare, crime, or circumstances of day-to-day life; but that right is balanced by a duty to support government providing that protection by supplying government with the necessary resources, usually through taxation. While there are many in the United States who would embrace that philosophy, they have to contend with those who oppose this point of view as a menacing instance of "socialism," even if they never seem to be able to explain what makes socialism so menacing. This opposition is so virulent that it "infects" just about every election held in this country, all the way from national down to the smallest local units.

It is no secret that supporters of social democracy tend to be found among those who would be counted as intellectuals, but this just adds fuel to the opposition's fire. We are thus experiencing a revival of the phenomena studied by Richard Hofstadter in his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Unfortunately, many intellectuals tend to react to such opposition with the old saw that "people get the government they deserve," as if this conviction will hold them above the fray of what they view as a prevailing "madness of the crowd." This overlooks a variation on that motto that is more in keeping with what Hans Magnus Enzensberger called the "consciousness industry," which operates on the principle that people get the government that is marketed to them. It is through such manipulation that those who feel so rabidly about socialism are convinced that social democracy is wrong, while those who embrace social democracy on intellectual grounds make the mistake of dismissing their opposition as stupid.

The Consumer Reports story on dietary supplements may provide an opportunity to frame the question of what kind of government we want in terms that everyone can understand. How important is it to have a government that protects us from harm, even when that harm arises from those "circumstances of day-to-day life?" Is it important enough to pay taxes for a regulatory authority with the resources to protect you from consuming substances that claim to make you feel better but may actually damage your health (or, for that matter, from losing your life savings on financial products known to be fraudulent)? If it is not that important, are you willing to live in a world of Deadwood-like laissez-faire social Darwinism, in which every individual must muster the strength for his/her own survival? I am not saying that, if the question is framed in such fundamental terms, social democracy will prevail; but, if it is framed that way and social democracy is rejected, those of us who prefer it will know where we stand in our own country!

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