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A New Voice


By Mark Helm

IF PRESIDENT CARTER'S proposal to create an Agency for Consumer Protection has proved an easy target for critics, it is not so much because the proposal is without merit as that its proponents have promised too much. The consumer movement has taken on all of the characteristics of a religious crusade, and the consumer protection agency has become its Holy Grail. Ralph Nader and his followers--who see thalidomide behind every drug counter and carcinogens in every can of deodorant--have promised unrealistic benefits from a proposal that would, in reality, be an imperfect solution to the problem of adequately representing the interest of the consumer in the government proceedings. The unfortunate result has been that when critics discredit the overblown claims of the Naderites, they seem also to have discredited the entire notion of creating an institutional advocate of consumer viewpoints.

In fact, while the Carter proposal is flawed and imperfect, it probably is better than nothing. Such an argument is hardly compelling or even dramatic, and so, understandably, the consumer movement has not addressed the issue in these terms. Nevertheless, while much of the criticism of the consumer movement's rhetoric is justified, the lack of adequate consumer representation in government proceedings is a serious problem, and until better solutions are found, the Agency for Consumer Protection is an appropriate, if not an ideal alternative.

Critics of the proposal have focused their attack on the consumer advocates' implicit assumption that there is some uniform consumer interest that the agency could identify and represent. Of course, in many cases this assumption is unjustified. Consumers have many interests, some of which are mutually exclusive; for instance, there is often a trade-off between low prices and safety. How the agency would strike an appropriate balance between these conflicting values is a mystery to everyone but Nader, who seems to have an opinion on everything, and to believe that his views and those of the "consumer" are necessarily one and the same. Moreover, there is a question as to whether the consumer's narrow economic interest is always consonant with the public interest. The objective consumer interest in regard to the breeder reactor, for example, might be to speed its development to cultivate unlimited supplies of cheap nuclear fuel. Such an interest, though, is probably outweighed by the public need to avoid proliferation of nuclear materials abroad.

WITH SUCH UNCERTAINTIES, the positions that an Agency for Consumer Protection takes will be determined largely by the type of people it hires and by the forces outside of the agency that seek to influence it. Just as existing regulatory agencies are influenced by the businesses they regulate and by interested independent interest groups, so will an Agency for Consumer Protection be influenced by its own constituency, whether it be Nader's Raiders, the Consumers' Union, or the Daughters of the American Revolution. Some group undoubtedly will influence the way in which any consumer agency defines the consumer interest; the problem, critics argue, is that until the agency is set up, no one can be sure who the influential group will be. By creating a consumer protection agency Congress will be furthering the interests of some special interest group, whose identity will become apparent only after the agency has been established.

While these criticisms sully the appearance of the consumer movement's brainchild, they do not prove that it is totally without merit. It may be difficult to determine in all cases what the consumer interest is, but it is better to represent consumers imprecisely than not at all. On the big questions--nuclear power plant siting, saccharin in foods, fluoride in the water--consumers are adequately represented. Newspapers publicize these issues, consumer groups agitate over them, and concerned citizens write their congressmen about them. But on the regulations that escape public attention--regulations determining the width of crib slats, the amount of effluent to be dumped in an obscure rural stream, or the strength of side door reinforcements in automobiles--manufacturers always have a more deeply perceived--and more forcefully expressed--interest in presenting their viewpoint to bureaucrats than do consumers. A consumer may spend ten hours a week in his car, but for the President of General Motors, producing automobiles is a full-time job. These regulations hit where it hurts most--in the profit margin.

Decisions such as these profoundly affect the interests of the buying public. But without some formal or institutionalized means of representing consumers' interests in the day-to-day operations of the government, many of these decisions will be made subject only to the influence of organized and well-financed business interest groups. Pro-business regulations often will be established, not because congressmen are sinister or because bureaucrats have been bribed, but because only one side of the story is being told.

SINCE THE PROBLEM is largely one of representation, the consumer agency would not have any power to set regulations. It would merely bring consumer interests to the attention of the government by participating in the informal and formal proceedings of other federal agencies, challenging regulations in court, and serving as a clearinghouse for consumer complaints. So even if the consumer protection agency took an outrageous position on a particular issue, such as the breeder reactor, the rest of the government could simply ignore it.

Despite the fact that the consumer protection agency would have no power of its own, however, its impact could well be significant. The problem now is not that the existing bureaucracy hates consumers, but that, hearing only manufacturers' complaints day in and day out, these agencies come to sympathize with the industries they regulate. If consumers were given an equal chance to be heard, it seems reasonable to assume that business' cozy relationship with these agencies would be shaken up a bit. Even if the viewpoint that the agency expresses is not a precise or coherent one, it will at least force other agencies to consider the effects that their regulations have on the buying public. The Agency for Consumer Protection would function not as just another regulatory agency, but as a means of revitalizing existing ones.

SO THE WORST THING that critics can say about the consumer agency is that it might not do everything that Nader says it will do. They may be right, but that still leaves room for positive accomplishments. The proposal is worth a try, especially if enacted with a "sunset" clause calling for the abolition of the agency after three years unless Congress takes positive action to renew its charter. This would eliminate the problem created by agencies that have outlived their usefulness, but that cannot be scuttled because they have acquired a few friends and no enemies.

Carter's proposal is in no sense a final solution; it is impossible even to predict reliably what the agency would do, or how the balance of interests in Washington would be altered. But the problem the proposal addresses--the relative over-representation of manufacturing interests in relation to those of the consuming public--will not go away by itself. While no one can say precisely what the consumer interest is, everyone agrees that it is not getting as much attention as it should be, and any new viewpoint in the stagnant imbalance of Washington interests is to be welcomed. The proposal may be simplistic, naive, and more symbolic than substantial, but it is better than nothing.

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