It happened today - November 30, 2015

On November 30, 1965, one of the icons of the 1960s appeared. It was a book, not a person on drugs without any clothes. It was Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile and it was an immediate hit that made the author famous for life and prompted government action to protect consumers from the malice of business and their own stupidity. It was that kind of era.

The irony isn’t just that Nader’s prime target, the Chevy Corvair, was in fact no less safe than other cars. It’s that Nader’s paranoia, the notion that cars were deliberately made unsafe instead of, at worst, not being made safe enough, was totally off target. Americans were becoming more safety-conscious and manufacturers would have had to adapt. Instead the process of consumer sovereignty driving product improvement was short-circuited, first on safety and then on fuel economy and other environmental considerations. Coupled with long-standing government intervention in labour relations in the auto and related industries, all this benign intervention … basically killed the U.S. car industry.

Nader has been a pest ever since, sometimes on relatively worthy causes, sometimes on worthless ones, but always from the wrong angle. The 1960s spoke of power to the people, but gave it to governments, and the world is not a better place for it. It is not an improvement, let alone empowering, that policemen make manufacturers put seat belts in my car and make me wear them, instead of me working it out with my fellows who manufacture vehicles for me.

The worst part is, we’re now so used to it that people think it’s totally weird if you’d rather buckle up voluntarily. Even in the United States, the land of the free. Except in New Hampshire, where they put the state motto “Live free or die” on their licence plates and seem to mean it, no matter how much it annoys Ralph Nader.