When the famous die, news reports and commentary, no matter the length, do not always recall some of the most memorable things they’d said or advocated. Milton Friedman and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist are cases in point.
Consider what the famed economist said in a January 1970 article in The New York Times Magazine: A governmental system cannot be devised “which will not be taken over by vested economic “interests and exploited for the preservation and enhancement of their own wealth.” It’s hard to imagine a more accurate, more concise description of what the Bush administration has been doing for six years now: appointing to top regulatory posts corporate lobbyists and executives who had dedicated their careers to enfeebling and destroying the very safety and health regulations that on taking office they solemnly swear–perjuriously?–to enforce.
Mr. Friedman of course abhorred regulation, going so far as to insist that competition alone can be relied upon to protect the public. In a January 1973 Newsweek column, for example, he cited serious flaws in federal regulation of food and drugs as a basis for arguing that it should be abolished and replaced by “consumer sovereignty.” It does not detract from Mr. Friedman’s many brilliant insights and achievements to call this advice foolish and dangerous. A quick example: If all fast-food chains compete by using trans-fats to improve flavor, is competition protecting consumers ignorant of their terrible effects?
In any case, the advice having been neglected in articles recording his passing, it may well be prudent to examine it here before market-is-God, free-enterprise ideologues at corporate-funded think-tanks begin to propagate it anew as some kind of Holy Writ.
By the time Mr. Friedman had written the Newsweek column, it was anything but news that from the time our country was founded, the American people had relied on “consumer sovereignty” for protection. And it was also anything but news that after the industrial revolution in the late Nineteenth Century they had learned the hard way—from, for example, patent medicines that claimed to be cures for everything but that cured nothing—that their health, safety and pocketbooks demanded passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906 (and of later laws such as those to protect consumers’ and workers’ safety and health and to guard against false and misleading advertising).
That abandoning regulation of food and drugs could needlessly threaten human safety, health and life on a massive scale was common knowledge long before Friedman invented “consumer sovereignty.” A dramatic example involves thalidomide, a sedative/tranquilizer that a conscientious Food and Drug Administration medical officer declined to approve for sale. In 1962—11 years before the Newsweek column—the world learned that thousands of babies had been born armless, legless or limbless to women who had taken the drug during the first trimester of pregnancy. The mothers lived in countries where there was no drug regulation or where regulation was weak or had failed. Neither they nor the prescribing physicians on whom they had relied had the faintest inkling of thalidomide’s dangers. “Consumer sovereignty”?
Unlike thalidomide, carcinogens are a continuing and ever-present threat. They occur in pesticides, foods, drugs, and the air we breathe. Importantly, the cancers they cause may not become apparent for 20 or 30 years. If the Environmental Protection Agency and the FDA did not exist, or if they did not devise and enforce regulations intended to keep carcinogens out of our foods, medicines, and air, or if the EPA and FDA are, in the professor’s words, “taken over by vested economic interests and exploited for the preservation and enhancement of their own wealth,” then what use to cancer victims would be the words “consumer sovereignty”? Even the right to try to hold a manufacturer or a polluter liable after the fact is under constant relentless attack in Washington and state capitols by the politicians those vested interests bought and buy.
The late Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) invited Milton Friedman to testify at hearings of his Senate Subcommittee on Monopoly on the economist’s and other proposals to dismantle the FDA. He declined the invitation.
In the coverage of the Supreme Court career of the late William Rehnquist, understandably, much attention was paid to his opinions and to his having been among the Justices who chose George W. Bush to be President. What got buried was that he shared Milton Friedman’s concern about vested interests. He made this crystal-clear in 1978, in a nearly forgotten dissent to a 5-4 ruling in a case titled First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti. The excerpts below (footnotes deleted) might surprise many admirers of this idol of conservatives:
The question presented today, whether business corporations have a constitutionally protected liberty to engage in political activities, has never been squarely addressed by any previous decision of this Court….
Until recently, it was not thought that any persons, natural or artificial, had any protected right to engage in commercial speech….
It cannot be so readily concluded that the right of political expression is equally necessary to carry out the functions of a corporation organized for commercial purposes. A State grants to a business corporation the blessings of potentially perpetual life and limited liability to enhance its efficiency as an economic entity. It might reasonably be concluded that those properties, so beneficial in the economic sphere, pose special dangers in the political sphere.
Furthermore, it might be argued that liberties of political expression are not at all necessary to effectuate the purposes for which States permit commercial corporations to exist. So long as the Judicial Branches of the State and Federal Governments remain open to protect the corporation’s interest in its property, it has no need, though it may have the desire, to petition the political branches for similar protection. Indeed, the States might reasonably fear that the corporation would use its economic power to obtain further benefits beyond those already bestowed.”
Too seldom while Milton Friedman and William Rehnquist lived did one hear of the Nobel Prize-winning economist’s warning about vested interests or of the Chief Justice’s informed belief that corporations do not “have a constitutionally protected liberty to engage in political activities.” On their passing, Americans should have heard more of what cannot be music in the ears of faux-conservatives.