Sez Who?

Like most travelers, I have suffered the loss — fortunately temporary — of my luggage. So I was interested in the article about it that I discovered in a magazine. Lost luggage is a common problem, and not getting better. Last year was the worst year, in terms of bags lost, since 1990, with 10,000 complaints from travelers. And if your suitcase is among the missing, you’re at the mercy of the airline, it seems. Why is this happening? The article doesn’t assign specific blame, but hints at it: There are no international or U.S. government guidelines! And government, of course, has a solution for every problem.

Perhaps you’ve decided to supplement your diet with some vitamins, or herbal or mineral supplements. If you check the internet on the subject of dietary supplements, you’ll find plenty of information, including such statements as, "Sad to say, in America, the supplement and herb industry isn’t regulated; so products have not been tested and approved by the government for effectiveness, or safety. If you use a supplement, you are taking a risk." Such dire warnings of non-regulated activities have become so commonplace that they no longer amaze or amuse us.

What does it mean to say that a dietary supplement, or airline procedure, is "unregulated?" It means that there are no relevant government rules, or "laws." Ohmigosh! We’ll be lucky to survive the week!

Probably the first thought that comes to mind when we’re told that such-and-such an activity is unregulated is that the business involved will cheat us, because Uncle is not controlling it, at least in some respect. That’s ironic: government is the only institution known to man which lays claim to other people’s property solely because it has a "legal" right to do so — which it gave itself! Government loots and plunders, but it’s OK, because the government itself says so, and will even have one of its stooges dress up in black and sit on a bench to proclaim the whole thing legal and proper, should anyone have the temerity to question it.

And does government approval guarantee safety? Tell that to the people who are suing the makers of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for marketing a medicine that seems to be associated with increased risk of heart attacks, or who might sue the makers of antidepressant drugs that may induce suicidal behavior. Is it reasonable to believe that employees of government have greater pharmaceutical knowledge than employees of pharmaceutical companies?

Does government regulation of drugs make them effective? Will anti-histamines, taken for a cold, shorten the illness, or materially alleviate the symptoms? What sort of "effectiveness" does government approval guarantee with regard to chemotherapeutic drugs? And don’t forget the placebo effect! Even the proverbial sugar pill will make some people feel better. Can’t people be allowed to take supplements that are "ineffective" if it makes them feel better to do it? If a drug’s efficacy is mostly psychological, does that make it ineffective?

Would government regulations regarding the handling of luggage result in fewer lost bags? Is there something the folks in Washington know about luggage handling that the airlines don’t know?

Do companies providing unregulated goods or services deliberately cheat their customers for monetary gain? Would they be more prone to do that than the purveyors of regulated goods or services? Being unregulated does not mean exempt from liability. If you are selling a supplement labeled 50 mgs, and, in fact, it’s only 30 mgs, are you immune from lawsuit by virtue of being unregulated? Are government workers the only ones capable of weighing a pill, and crying "foul" if it’s underweight?

Would an airline that profited by cutting costs on baggage handling, resulting in more lost luggage, continue to prosper once the public realized that flying on that airline meant an enhanced chance of losing one’s bag? Well, quite possibly it would, because competition among airlines is minimized by regulations limiting the operation of airlines.

But that, of course, is in the public interest, even if it results in poorer service at higher cost. These things are too important to be decided by the public.

The whole regulation business is posited upon the idea that self-regulation is inadequate and non-existent, while government regulation guarantees honesty and efficacy. Is there any justification whatever for such a belief? I mean: is the government itself regulated? If government regulation prevents improper or unlawful shenanigans on the part of the regulated companies, what about the regulating agency itself? It may claim to protect us from rapacious firms, but who protects us from the regulators?

I can stop buying useless/harmful supplements, and, if possible, switch airlines, if the one I have been using loses my bags too often; but how do I opt out of government? Who says what’s to be controlled, limited, and regulated? Absurdly, our "servants" regulate us; we have no control over them!

It’s a system that cries out for regulation!

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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