In 1972 the federal government created a new agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and gave it an impossible task: make hundreds of thousands of consumer products, from children’s sleepwear and bedding to hand tools and recreational vehicles, safer. Here’s how the CPSC succeeded by focusing on the most troublesome products, keeping a watchful eye on others, and using a “trust but verify” approach.
Until the 20th century factory, railroad, and mine work was nasty and brutish, and the lives of workers were frequently short. Gradually, governments brought humane processes and healthier working conditions to the private sector. Here’s how they did it in three large waves of reform.
The human lifespan has doubled in the past century, and a big part of the reason is that we have safer, more effective drugs and cleaner processing of meat, poultry, and vegetables. In the United States, ensuring these things belongs almost exclusively to the federal government. Looking back, what’s surprising is what a struggle it was to get reasonable food and drug regulation. But now that we see the results, let’s take a moment to thank government for them.
State governments began licensing doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other professionals in the late 1800s. They did it because colleges were turning out highly trained people who found themselves surrounded by con artists and quacks. The professionals turned to the states for help. In the century and a half since, licensing has raised professional standards and given us some assurance that those we depend on for expert advice are trained and acting in our best interests. For this, we can thank government.
Air and water quality are not where they should be in America, and we have not yet halted climate change. But the air in our cities is much clearer than it was 50 years ago, dangerous chemicals have been eliminated, and urban rivers no longer catch on fire. For these things, we can thank government and learn how it accomplished these things.