Political Crusaders

Thomas Sowell

4/16/2008 12:01:00 AM - Thomas Sowell

The latest political crusade is the crusade to replace ordinary light bulbs with the new CFL light bulb that is supposed to save electricity, reducing the need for fossil fuels and helping the fight against global warming.

Since crusaders seldom stop to weigh the cost of what they are advocating, it is especially important that the rest of us do so before we get swept along by rhetoric and emotions.

With the CFL light bulb, the initial cost -- several times that of a regular light bulb -- is only the financial cost. A bigger problem is what to do if a CFL light bulb breaks.

You are supposed to shut off all air conditioners or heaters, to keep them from circulating mercury vapor from the broken CFL. You are supposed to open windows and doors to air out the place.

Pregnant women and small children are supposed to leave the area while the mess is being cleaned up by someone else, wearing a dust mask and gloves.

What if there is only a pregnant woman present, with or without small children? And what if there is no dust mask around?

CFL light bulbs are only the latest in a long line of "solutions" that can turn out to be worse than the problem it is supposed to solve. But the crusaders will keep selling their solutions as long as we keep buying them.

Another of the political solutions that can turn out to be worse than the problem it was supposed to solve was the recent cancellation of thousands of airline flights around the country, so that various "safety" inspections of aircraft can be made.

Needless to say, this was not the airlines' idea, considering how many millions of dollars in fares they lost. Nor was it even the idea of the Federal Aviation Agency, which usually cuts the airlines some slack on items that are not considered to be really dangerous.

The pressure to get those "safety" checks and corrections done immediately, regardless of costs, came from Congressional politicians during an election year.

One of the real problems with safety issues of all sorts is that there is seldom a weighing of particular dangers against the costs of correcting those dangers -- including the cost of greater dangers from X while you are correcting the dangers from Y.

In the case of the airlines, we are in an unprecedented era of safety as far as American commercial airlines are concerned and the uninspected items did not all have to be inspected immediately.

Since there were thousands of airline flights cancelled in the name of safety, this means that there were at least tens of thousands of passengers unable to take the flights they had booked.

Some of those passengers drove cars to reach the destinations to which they had originally planned to fly. Since automobile fatality rates per mile have long been several times as high as airline fatality rates per mile, this means that the dangers to life and limb have not been reduced by this political grandstanding.

Instead people have been exposed to greater dangers -- in the name of safety!

This is not an unusual situation with hyped safety crusades, whether by politicians or by other safety crusaders.

The testing of pharmaceutical drugs for safety, under the regulations of the Food and Drug Administration, goes on for years -- sometimes for more than a decade -- before these drugs are allowed to be sold to the public.

Even if the drugs have been used for years in Europe without any ill effects, that cuts no ice with the FDA. Even patients stricken with potentially fatal diseases are not allowed to buy the drugs until after many years of testing -- if the patients live that long.

This is just one of the ways in which people are dying from safety rules. Safety crusaders often say, "if it saves just one life," it is worth it -- without counting how many other lives may be sacrificed on the altar to "safety."

Some safety crusaders may be satisfied just to be morally one-up by making lofty statements. Politicians who are safety crusaders will be satisfied if that gets you to vote for them, which is their real bottom line.