Stossel Gives Denver a Break
by Ari Armstrong, February 3, 2005
On the 100-year anniversary of Ayn Rand's birth, February 2, one of her fans addressed a crowd in Denver and argued for economic liberty. John Stossel, who works for ABC and who has reached millions of viewers with specials such as "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?" and "Greed," appeared at the University of Denver to talk about his conversion to libertarianism and pitch his book, Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media. The event was co-sponsored by the Independence Institute and the Young America's Foundation.
Jon Caldara, President of the Independence Institute, greets John Stossel following Stossel's talk at the University of Denver on February 2. Additional photographs are shown below.
Douglas Bruce, author of Colorado's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, asked the first question following Stossel's speech and mentioned the day marked the anniversary of Rand's birth. Later, when asked about Michael Crichton's new novel, State of Fear, Stossel discussed the general significance of spreading ideas through novels. Stossel wondered, "Who did more than Ayn Rand" to spread the ideas of freedom? "People keep reading Ayn Rand," he noted.
However, while he said Crichton's novel is "worth checking out," he said some of his colleagues with whom he discussed the book found it "unconvincing."
In general, as the subtitle of his book indicates, Stossel seemed frustrated that his fellow journalists are largely unreceptive to his point of view. "I'm a libertarian," he said, adding that conservatives have an even tougher time in journalism.
Stossel said that, when he first began his career, he reported on consumer issues and pointed to the unethical practices of various businesses. For example, he criticized drug companies who made exaggerated claims and window companies who filmed commercials with the windows rolled down to make the "glass" look impeccably clean.
So long as he restricted his reporting to criticizing business, Stossel said, he was well-received among his colleagues. But as soon as he turned a critical eye to government regulators, and even argued that sometimes regulation "makes things worse for consumers," some in his profession became hostile.
In college, Stossel said, he was taught the standard line that capitalism is "cruel and unfair." Later, though, he began to see that markets efficiently solve a wide range of problems, whereas many regulations "strangle economic growth."
Stossel said a free market is one in which "business can't use force." It is marked by "mutually beneficial exchange." He gave the simple example of buying an ice cream cone: both parties are happy and they exchange a "thank you."
In many respects, Stossel argued, a free market will "police itself." If a particular business offers shoddy products or service, "word will get out." For example, he said large television stations voluntarily screen ads for accuracy. They found "they could make more money if they policed themselves," Stossel said.
Stossel praised voluntary organizations such as the Better Business Bureau, Consumer Reports, and Underwriters Laboratories. He said such institutions, a part of the free market, help ensure good business practices and product safety.
Unfortunately, Stossel has found, government regulations often produce "nasty, unexpected side-effects." Some regulations he examined adversely "affected the good people who obey the rules, while the cheaters get around the rules."
Stossel used the example of drug laws. He noted that most crime associated with drugs results "because it's illegal... it's the law that causes the crime." That's because of the laws produce a violent underground market that makes "unbelievably rich criminal gangs." In addition, the drug laws have a corrupting influence on police forces and draw some young poor kids into a life of crime.
Next, Stossel discussed legal but regulated drugs. By keeping life-saving drugs off the market for years, Stossel argued, the actions of the Food and Drug Administration actually result in more deaths. Whereas the government says, "no, you are forbidden" to use certain drugs, Stossel wondered, "Why can't the FDA be voluntary?" That is, the FDA could make recommendations, but people would be left free to buy non-approved drugs. Furthermore, strictly voluntary drug-safety organizations "would give us more choice."
"Shouldn't we have that choice over our bodies?" Stossel wondered. "Patrick Henry didn't say, 'Give me absolute safety or give me death'." Stossel said that, against the "invisible hand" of the free market, government regulations often answer with an "invisible fist."
"Why have we become such wimps in this free country?" Stossel asked. "Why do we let the government decide yes or no?"
Stossel also discussed such matters as tort reform and protecting the poor from shoddy products.
Stossel offered a few criticisms of the media. One problem is an institutional unwillingness to consider alternative points of view. For example, Stossel researched the explosion of government spending in recent decades. "Reporting like that has made me unpopular among my peers," he said.
Stossel also described an "evil partnership" between trial lawyers and journalists. The lawyers feed journalists information and provide sympathetic people for interviews. Unfortunately, this leads to sensationalist coverage of minor risks, while major risks go unreported.
For example, driving is far more dangerous, in terms of days of life it costs, than murder, house fires, terrorism, and airplane crashes.
And poverty is far more dangerous still. "Wealthier is much healthier," Stossel said. That's one reason he dislikes expensive, ineffective regulations. Over-regulation "makes us a little poorer... and that kills people," he said.
Stossel pointed out that, despite the scare stories in the media, "we're living longer than ever."
Stossel left a couple of issues hanging. First, if poverty is the great health risk, shouldn't there be a massive welfare state to reduce poverty? Such a position is at odds with Stossel's self-proclaimed libertarianism, yet Stossel didn't address the point. (Free-market advocates generally respond that governmental anti-poverty programs are inconsistent with individual rights, they introduce perverse incentives, and they are generally ineffective relative to private charity efforts.)
Second, Stossel said he's a libertarian, but not an anarchist, and therefore he supports some governmental regulations. For example, he said, we "need environmental rules." The question he asked is this: "How big should government be?" Yet the primary issue is not how much government is appropriate, but what activities the government should regulate, and how. The answer is complicated in application but fairly simple in principle (according to standard free-market theory). The government should outlaw acts of violence, threats of violence, and fraud. The government should also protect property rights. For instance, the government properly cracks down on pollution. Yet this is problematic, because those who work in government must decide whether specific cases of alleged pollution actually violate property rights. So there is a role for deciding the appropriate level of governmental action, after all.
(As a side note, Stossel also avoided the issue of Rand's antipathy toward all things "libertarian," even though most libertarians claim her as an inspiration.)
But Stossel is a news man, not an academic, and so he may reasonably focus on matters other than advanced theory. When somebody asked him if he might run for political office, Stossel said he is content to "keep doing what I'm doing." And that is to look at particular cases of business activity and regulatory activity, ask tough questions, and do what's right by the consumer.
Stossel concluded his talk, "The founders fought a war for liberty, and we're giving it back bit by bit... I hope you fight for that liberty that makes all good things possible."