I could probably fill this blog with posts picking apart each of Donald Trump’s proposed policy changes, because almost all of them are heinous impositions of unnecessary mental burden, but let’s focus on the Food and Drug Administration.

Trump has already railed against the FDA for being the “food police” and proposed eliminating food safety regulations. His rumoured pick for FDA head, Jim O’Neill, wants to do away with drug efficacy studies.

This should really go without saying, but these ideas are all terrible—and awful for the public’s mental burden.

In her book Dynamics in Document Design, Karen Schriver devotes a section to the history of clear labelling laws. In old-timey times, manufacturers were free to exaggerate—and outright lie—about what their products did and what was in them.

The pervasiveness of unsubstantiated claims at the turn of the century made consumers increasingly concerned about the purity and safety of food, drugs, and cosmetics. Not only could companies “get away with” selling the cure of the week, but the level of government control regarding basic food and drug items was primitive at best. Because there were no laws governing what companies could say about their products, they could make almost any claim they wished. Early investigative reporters fueled the debate by writing scathing exposés of unethical practices concerning product safety, food cleanliness, and manufacturing standards. These “muckrakers,” as they were called by President Theodore Roosevelt, stirred up the public about corruption in business and government. Their work inspired consumers to lobby government officials to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906. (p. 22)

More recently, during the George W. Bush administration, lax regulations were blamed for E. coli outbreaks due contaminated vegetables.

And that’s just the food. Do you really want to be taking drugs—many of which have life-altering side effects—that have never been proven to treat what they purport to treat?

We’ve gotten used to trusting that what a jar says is inside of it is actually what’s inside, but that’s thanks to more than a century of regulation—truth-in-advertising laws, labelling laws, inspections—rather than to the benevolence of the corporations that produce our food and drugs. Regulation freed us of the mental burden of having to worry about whether our groceries will kill us or make us sick, possibly chronically. On the rare occasions when they do today, it’s a huge scandal. But if the FDA is gutted, it could become a regular occurrence. The 2008 melamine scandal in China shows how far-reaching the damage from underregulated, unscrupulous manufacturers can be.

Free-market proponents like to argue that the market corrects itself and that people will learn not to buy from manufacturers that make unsafe products. But this system is reactionary: by the time a problem is discovered and reported, countless people may already have been harmed. And when all companies are free to make spurious claims and the public won’t be able to tell what’s true and what’s not—essentially a kind of gaslighting—all manufacturers will exaggerate as much as they can get away with.

Overregulation can be a source of mental burden, too, but I, for one, would rather not have the uncertainty of wondering whether a label might be lying to me.

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