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.