Where’s Ralph Nader when you need him?

I used to own an older house that still had two prong electric outlets.  I was doing some other renovation, and I figured at the same time I would pay the electrician to change the two prong electric to grounded three prong.  Well, the electrician screwed me.  He changed the outlets to three prong all right, but that’s all he did.  He didn’t do any rewiring.  The outlets were not grounded.

I didn’t find out until I tried to sell the house.  The city occupancy inspection detected the problem, and I couldn’t sell the house until the problem was fixed.  So what did the city do?  Did they go after this unscrupulous electrician, revoke his license, put him in jail, and make him fix my house to boot?  No.  They did nothing.  Fixing the outlets was my problem.  Finding and suing the electrician was also my problem.  It turns out there was a statute of limitations on these kind of construction complaints and I couldn’t even sue him, but even if I could, it’s not fair that I have to spend the time and expense to track him down and sue him.

Why didn’t the building permit inspection find this problem when the work was originally done?  Well, the electrician never got the final inspection done.  He opened a building permit, but never got the final inspection done.  Did the city call me and say, “Hey, you’ve had a building permit open for several years.  Maybe you ought to check with your electrician.”  No.  They did nothing.  Getting the inspection done was my problem too.

And I just didn’t know anything was wrong.  I left for work in the morning.  I came back in the evening and my house had three prong outlets.  I assumed they’d been installed correctly.  I hired a professional after all.  I didn’t know the city building permit process.  I didn’t know that an important inspection went undone.  Once again, I left for work in the morning.  I came back in the evening and the electrician says everything is done.  I assume he got the inspections done during the day.

So what should I have done differently?  Well, the libertarian would say, “buyer beware!”  You should have double-checked the electrician’s work.  You should have known the city building permit process and made sure everything was done properly.  Well, I guess a real libertarian would say there shouldn’t be a city building permit process.  My double check of the electrician’s work should be my only line of defense.  But wait, I’m not an electrician.  You’re expecting me to tell whether the electrician is cutting corners?  Look, the whole reason I’m hiring an electrician is that I don’t have the time and knowledge to do the work myself.  And your response is that I should have the time and knowledge to look over the electrician’s shoulder and make sure he does everything right?

You may say an ungrounded outlet is easy to check.  Okay, but what if it was something else that isn’t so easy to check.  What if there was some problem with the way he hooked up the main panel and I look at that mess of wires and I really can’t tell that it’s wrong*, or it’s something buried in the walls that I can’t see at all?  Basically, libertarians expect me to be superman.  If I have any weakness at all, such as not understanding electric wiring, then it’s okay for anyone to try to take advantage of my weakness and if they get me it’s my own fault.

What I’m trying to say is that I don’t feel that buyer beware is sufficient consumer protection.  The fact that you need an electrician because you can’t do the work yourself makes you susceptible to being cheated by the very electrician you are hiring.  The libertarian philosophy of, “don’t be susceptible, don’t have any weaknesses, just be perfect all the time.” is not very satisfying.

The liberal would say, “Don’t worry.  Government regulation will protect you!”  But the city building permit process didn’t protect me.  In fact, it just dumped additional problems in my lap because I couldn’t sell the house until I fixed the outlets and jumped through all of their paperwork hoops.  One problem with liberals is their overconfidence that government regulations actually achieve their stated goals all of the time.

So buyer beware didn’t protect me, but the government didn’t either.  Great, now I can’t be a liberal or a conservative.  What do I do now?

* Libertarians might counter that I don’t have to be a wiring expert.  I can just hire one of the private independent inspectors that will instantly spring into existence once we repeal the evil government building regulations.  This highlights one area where I am in agreement with libertarians.  I think it is possible for private individuals to organize themselves and take care of things like this without government.  But I would say possible while some libertarians assume it would be automatic.  I think there are still questions about who watches the watchers.  How do I keep from being cheated by the inspector who I hired to keep from being cheated by the electrician?  I feel the same way about libertarian proposals for things like privatizing police.  It could work with a strong civil society, but it could also degenerate into corporate feudalism.  Of course, libertarians make the point that government is no panacea for the “who watches the watchers” problem, but at least government is supposed to operate for the common good instead of for private gain, which can provide some additional protection.

9 comments ↓

#1 Jeff Locke on 10.01.08 at 8:42 pm

I think we are on to something

#2 Joe Locke on 10.02.08 at 9:54 pm

Nader is a great consumer advocate. However, I would consider him more left-populist than left-libertarian. Libertarianism is all about civil liberties. The libertarian party in the US is dominated by libertarian-capitalist that have allowed their “free-market” rhetoric to surpass the defining emphasis on civil liberties. The rights of corporations (from where do they derive their rights?) are given more protection than the rights of the individual or community. The much older tradition of libertarian-socialism or anarchism addresses these very issues, but that topic is for another time.

#3 Neal Locke on 10.04.08 at 8:07 am

I think that civil liberties and consumer liberties are actually pretty intertwined, hence the connection to Nader’s consumer advocacy. I also like how Bob is subtly pointing out that neither total government control (via regulation) nor unchecked liberty of private enterprise (buyer beware) is a good thing for consumers.

The declaration of independence acknowledges (and promises to protect) certain unalienable rights for citizens. But corporate entities, though usually consisting of citizens, are not citizens themselves. Perhaps this is a characteristic of a liber(al)tarian? One who places freedom of individuals on a higher level than freedom of organizations (government, businesses, etc.).

#4 Joe Locke on 10.04.08 at 9:54 am

I have been thinking about the myth of corporate personhood and how it relates to the discussion of liberaltarianism, maybe more on that down the road…

#5 Naskra on 10.05.08 at 12:54 pm

This is a clear case where the libertarian solution is better. The libertarian would have you robbed by only one party and give you recourse. The liberal has you robbed by two parties with no recourse. And the libertarian will still let you sell your house, whereas the liberal won’t, though he might condemn it.
Either way, you need to learn a little bit about wiring.

#6 Joe Locke on 10.05.08 at 3:44 pm

Leaving this situation to the market is no solution at all, if you are this consumer. Also, the law failed to protect the consumer. When we look to an institutionalized solution for a specific situation, it will often fall short. No institution, whether it is the law of the market or the law of the land, can work for every situation. When we look at this situation with fresh eyes, then an infinite variety of solutions can become clear. For example, talk to the electrician and plead your case. If he does not listen, bring the problem before the community, an elder or a nonpartisan arbitrator. Societies have long had traditions for dealing with these very types of problems. Ethicist continue to develop solutions to problems such as this as well. In our humanity we can resolve those problems created by man and find creative solutions to many more.

#7 Bob Steinke on 10.05.08 at 7:04 pm

When I used Ralph Nader in the title I just meant to refer to his connection with consumer protection, not anything about his political campaigns. Really, I was just trying to have a catchy title.

In response to Naskra’s comment, with this post I was trying to point out some of the weaknesses in both the liberal and libertarian solutions. I think Joe hit the nail on the head that we don’t have to choose form only two solutions.

I don’t have a perfect solution up my sleeve. Most of my posts are going to be pointing out problems or describing attributes of what a good solution would look like. Not presenting actual solutions. But the most important think I think is that we should not stop looking for something better.

And we may in the meanwhile decide that, you know what, a laisez-faire free market (or government regulation) is the best option we’ve thought up so far, so lets use it, but don’t buy the hype that it has no problems and it’s the best thing that could possibly be.

#8 Joe Locke on 10.05.08 at 8:29 pm

By the way, great article. Its great to see all the conversation as well.

#9 Natasa on 12.25.15 at 3:22 pm

Listen I think this whole debate is rudoculiis. If a smoker walks past you outside, you breath it in for 2 seconds. You have the choice to stand beside a smoker or not, just as a smoker has the choice to stand beside a non smoker. What I find funny is that the government and lobby groups know what is best for us. It’s a public health issue, but it’s still okay to drive cars and trucks everywhere; it’s still okay to sell as much fast food as you want. Tobacco is one of the highest tax revenues for the government today (Vice tax) and I agree in vice taxation. Today obesity is causing just as much strain on the health service as tobacco disease, if not more. I mean where does it stop? Now they tell me that talking on a cell while driving is dangerous? It never ends. The power of big brother and lobby groups has expanded to epic proportions. Just remember every law passed is one less personal freedom.

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