Rich Tucker

’Tis the season -- to worry about lead.

Yes, the big story from coast-to-coast this Christmas seems to be about the danger of heavy metal, and we don’t mean the Twisted Sister Christmas album. Lead is in our toys and on our lights, and we’re told only one thing can do solve the problem: More government intervention in the economy.

For example, at a recent Democratic debate in Iowa, the candidates insisted our country is under siege. China is “sending dangerous toys into the United States,” former Sen. John Edwards charged, and the Bush administration hasn’t done anything about it. “As president, I would end -- flat, bang, no importation of those toys,” Sen. Joe Biden added. Sen. Barack Obama agreed. “I would say toys cannot come in.”

Finally, Sen. Chris Dodd made it clear he wasn’t going to be rhetorically outdone. “When we got word that they were sending toys over here with lead paint in them,” he added, “the president had the authority immediately to suspend importation. He wouldn’t do it. Had that been a U.S. corporation doing that, their doors would have been shut in 20 minutes.”

Dodd has stumbled over the truth here, but to paraphrase Winston Churchill, he managed to pick himself up and continue on anyway, with a typical pander to Iowans (he vowed to buy only toys made in their state). The truth is that when a corporation, American or not, sells a dangerous product, it is quickly punished. Not by the government, which can take months to act. By the market.

Consider the food industry. You’ve probably never heard of the Topps Meat Company, and you’ll never have another chance to sample its products. Back in September the company was forced to recall more than 20 million pounds of meat after it sickened some 40 people. Six days after the recall started, Topps went out of business.

“In one week we have gone from the largest U.S. manufacturer of frozen hamburgers to a company that cannot overcome the economic reality of a recall this large,” the company’s COO explained. The Department of Agriculture also announced it would step up its inspections of the meat industry, but that’s like locking the barn door after the cow’s already been turned into hamburger.

No government inspection regime will work as effectively or as efficiently as the market pressure that shut down Topps. Rest assured other companies, worried about going out of business too, improved their inspection process long before Uncle Sam even managed to hire the new meat inspectors.

Rich Tucker

Rich Tucker is a communications professional and a columnist for