Thomas Sowell

Ralph Nader may have performed a real public service by running for President again, despite the pleas and outcries of his liberal admirers. Oblivious to charges that his candidacy cost Al Gore the 2000 election, Nader has again put his own agenda first and foremost.

By doing so, Ralph Nader may at last force some people to actually think about him, especially in quarters where gushing about him has been the only accepted response in the past. Liberal columnist Albert Hunt, for example, says that Nader is "tarnishing a glittering record."

Nader does indeed have a glittering record. But all that glitters is not gold.

I must confess to being taken in by Ralph Nader when he first hit the headlines, back in 1965, with his book "Unsafe at Any Speed," which is what put him on the map. The thesis of this book was that American automobiles in general were unsafe and a new car called the Corvair was especially unsafe.

Since I was driving a Corvair at the time, this book really got my attention -- and, for a while, my belief. Over the years, however, facts began to emerge and tell a very different story.

Anyone studying the art of persuasion might well begin with "Unsafe at Any Speed" as a classic of that art. It managed to insinuate into the public mind many spectacular -- even glittering -- conclusions, with hard evidence being neither asked for nor given.

Nader's first sentence in the preface says it all: "For over half a century the automobile has brought death, injury, and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people."

He denounced the Corvair in particular and blamed "engineering and management operations within General Motors which led to such an unsafe vehicle."

Let's do something that slick lawyers hope we never do -- stop and think. Death and injuries are caused by many things: electricity, boats, knives, matches, vaccinations, etc., etc.

Why do we have such things then? Because they also provide benefits, and adults in real life weigh benefits against costs, since nothing is 100 percent safe. The automobile is no exception.

As for the Corvair, being a rear-engine car, it was more prone to certain kinds of accidents. Nader stressed those accidents, with gory details. On the other hand, front-engine cars are more prone to other kinds of accidents. Nader ignored such trade-offs.

Some critics said that the Corvair was hard to handle. Nader quoted them. Others said the Corvair had great handling. Nader ignored them. It was the simplicity of great art.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate