"The consumer must be protected at all times from his own indiscretion and vanity."
Readers, what do you think of this quote? Do you find it condescending in any way? Does it suggest to you that Ralph Nader thinks we're too foolish to know what's good for us?
Or, on the contrary, do you agree with Nader's statement? Do you think consumers (okay, maybe not all consumers, and certainly not you, but definitely many consumers) really are basically kind of dumb--thus needing protection from themselves?
Think about your answer for a minute.
To me, this is one of the most astonishing quotes of 20th Century consumer advocacy. It's also quite revealing, in that it nakedly exposes Nader's mindset and worldview.
Yes, you can see in these words a man who sincerely cares about consumers. Unfortunately, you can also see he sees them as little more than sheeple, crying out for guidance and protection, incapable of knowing or understanding what's good for them. And because of this, he wants to anoint "protectors" (including himself) so these defenseless consumers don't get taken advantage of.
I find it interesting to think that there could be a class of elite protectors out there not subject at all to the base human qualities of vanity and indiscretion.
Now, for a little more context about this quote. It's from an article called The Safe Car You Can't Buy published in The Nation back in 1959. It was the article that put Nader on the map and kicked off his crusade against the auto industry. And within a few years he would make himself a household name with his book Unsafe At Any Speed.
It's quite a striking experience to read this article. It's well-written, extremely persuasive, and an exceptional example of polemic--and I use the word in the non-pejorative sense.
And yet, incredibly, Nader's first prescription for making automobiles less dangerous turned out to be exactly wrong. He encouraged the car's body to be strengthened so it wouldn't be distorted by a collision. Thanks to modern crash safety technology--which now produces cars safer than anything in Nader's wildest dreams--we now know that cars should be designed to crumple around the passenger, absorbing a collision's force and energy and transferring it into the form of severe damage to the car's frame and structure.
Which why you're now more likely than ever to survive a high speed collision. Interestingly, it's also is why a 15 mph collision leaves you stuck with a ginormous repair bill.
Let's be clear: this is not to criticize Nader's many other insightful safety ideas in the article. And of course a discussion of the ideological debate of to what extent consumers should be "protected" from themselves is beyond the scope of this blog post (and likely also beyond my expertise).
But what's striking here is how expert opinion can change, radically, about the best way to make cars safer. What experts "knew" then about the need for strength and rigidity of the external body of a car differs from what experts know now. It's quite sobering, even disturbing, to think that Nader's first and most prominent safety suggestion actually increases danger to passengers rather than reduces it.
Which takes me to the key point of this post. What happens when a self-styled expert, one who "knows" what's best for consumers and their safety, turns out to be wrong?
Nader obviously meant well with his crusade for consumer safety. Which is great. It's wonderful that he meant well, and I'll give him extra points for his heart being in exactly the right place. But this guy anointed himself as our protector, and he "knew" what was good for us, and yet he turned out to be wrong about what was good for us. To borrow a quote: Nader saw danger lurking everywhere but in his own directives.
So, when you're wrong about consumer safety, when you tell (or far worse, require) people to do things that later are found out to be less safe, does it matter whether you meant well?
Readers, what do you think?
For Further Reading:
1) The Safe Car You Can't Buy
Ralph Nader's landmark 1959 essay in The Nation. Masterful, highly persuasive, polemic, and containing advice later debunked by developments in crash safety technology.
2) Antifragile by Nicholas Taleb
A excellent book covering many interesting topics, but relevant here is Taleb's discussion of interventionist experts who lack "skin in game" in the very fields they regulate. See in particular Chapters 1, 2 and 3.
3) Nader's Glitter
A provocative essay by Thomas Sowell arguing that Nader's famous campaign against the Chevrolet Corvair was based on selective data and ignored significant tradeoffs.
4) The Vision of the Anointed by Thomas Sowell
Sowell was an early critic both of political correctness and of the presumed moral and intellectual superiority of policy makers. He addresses Ralph Nader in quite striking terms in Chapter 4 of this book.
Read Next: Oppositional Literature: The Key Tool For Achieving True Intellectual Honesty
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