Ending the Year on a Political Low Note
Tibor R. Machan
On December 30, 2003, as if to remind us all of who is becoming more and
more in charge of our lives, agents of our Federal Government decided to
ban the over-the-counter dietary supplement ephedra – also known as ma
huang – and basically put a sizable portion of an industry out of
business. Sure, ephedra has had some bad side effects and is said to have
contributed to the death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler after
he consumed an ephedra-containing product. Reportedly some others, too,
have had various bad experiences with the product.
Given, then, that ephedra isn’t vital at least for most people’s daily
lives and that these days risk-aversion has become a near epidemic in our
society, perhaps we should not be terribly surprised that the Feds – in
particular Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson –
flexed their muscles so readily here. Then, also, given how eager so many
Americans have been to support George W. Bush and his Attorney General
John Ashcroft in the matter of curtailing our liberties in the pursuit of
perfect security vis-à-vis terrorists, it shouldn’t be expected that this
ban will be resisted by many citizens who aren’t themselves seeking use of
the product or members of the industry earning a living from providing it
for them in the market place. The only others who will raise a protesting
voice will be, like me, those who consider these kinds of bans seriously
flawed public policy.
Why protest the ban, you might wonder? The main reason is that in a free
society defective products must be dealt with via tort – and, on rare
occasions, the criminal – law. Shutting down an entire business community
on the grounds that some people have been harmed by its products is
plainly unjust. Only when a significant statistical – signaling a causal
– link is established between the product and serious harmful results can
it suffice as ground for punishing the manufacturer and seller of it.
Even in such cases if the product’s risk is spelled out as it is being
marketed, a ban isn’t warranted.
Just consider that driving cars is evidently not risk free; yet cars are
sold to millions of people every year. Nor are cars always used for vital
purposes – we take them to football games, getting our nails done and to
pick up such risky products as cigarettes and beer. Yet, cars aren’t
banned. And they should not be. Only when their normal, proper use
contributes to serious harmful consequences should the producers suffer
adverse consequences, and then only on an individual, case-by-case, basis.
That is what due process requires, not the mass banning of a risky
product, a policy that, moreover, deprives many people of what they freely
There is yet another scary dimension of this ban the government has
imposed: many legal experts and news reporters have yielded to the
temptation to become propagandists for the ban. On several TV news
programs the reporters and the experts they have invited to comment have
openly declared any and all opposition to the government’s ban a function
of pure economic interest, voiced only by lobbyists. This is akin to when
Attorney General John Ashcroft declared that criticism of his
anti-terrorist measures amounted to aiding and abetting terrorism.
The plain fact is that there are serious disinterested dissenters to the
government’s ban. Just as the protest against banning flag burning need
not come only from those who are bent on burning flags but may come from
principled opponents of such bans, the same holds for the new ban. It is
wrong to do this for a government of a free society and however used the
American public has become to various bans, it is worth calling to mind
that such policies fly in the face of the principles of a free society.
In this instance, of course, there is a new wrinkle to the government’s
petty tyranny. The Food and Drug Administration arguably lacks the
authority to regulate, let alone ban, over-the-counter products such as
headache remedies, dietary supplements, vitamins, and so forth. Not that
it ought to have any authority to regulate and ban prescription drugs.
But this most recent FDA action is clearly an expansion of the
government’s already unjustifiable powers.
This should alert even the most complacent of our citizens to the trend.
It usually begins with responses to panic, when people are not paying much
attention to the loss of liberty, but gradually moves toward taking over a
portion of our lives that we have every right to govern ourselves (with
only the aid of tort or criminal law).
The basic idea is that only after it is proven that some kind of conduct
is in violation of our rights, may the government move against those who
engage in it. This principle is now in near tatters.