Jewish World Review March 3, 2004 / 10 Adar, 5764

Thomas Sowell

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Consumer Reports

Nader's glitter | 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

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Years later, extensive government tests showed that the Corvair's safety was comparable to that of similar cars of its era. But, by then, the Corvair was extinct — killed off by the crusade that earned Nader a place as a kind of secular saint in the media.

Even those who disagree with some of Nader's conclusions or methods often make obeisance to his "idealism" as a "consumer advocate" and credit his work with improving automobile safety. But again, evidence is seldom asked for or given.

For decades before Ralph Nader came on the scene, automobile fatality rates were declining, despite more cars on the streets and highways, traveling at faster speeds. The automobile fatality rate per miles driven was less than one-third as high when "Unsafe at Any Speed" was published as it was back in the 1920s.

But facts never carry as much weight as a dramatic vision of "corporate greed" sacrificing helpless consumers until they are rescued by "consumer advocates" and federal regulations. For the left, Nader was playing their song and they danced to it.

Although the term "consumer advocate" has acquired a certain halo in the media, there are no qualifications whatever required to be called a consumer advocate. Moreover, Nader was never a consumer advocate in any real sense. He was a Nader advocate then and he is a Nader advocate now, when he runs for office oblivious to his friends and supporters.

In one of his earliest writings, Nader said, "the consumer must be protected at times from his own indiscretion and vanity." In other words, he wanted the Ralph Naders of the world to be able to dictate to consumers and producers alike. It's all about him. So is running for president.

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JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, "Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One." (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)


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