Cancer, Health, Government and Markets

At a recent policy forum sponsored by the Independent Institute, world-renowned cancer researcher Dr. Bruce Ames explained that the public has a distorted view of what causes cancer, thanks largely to media “scare” stories. He said the leading cause of cancer was bad diets (about 35 %), followed by smoking (about 30 %), chronic infection and hormonal disorders (about 20 % each), occupational hazards (about 2 percent), and pollution—less than 1 percent!

The media scare stories invariably carry the message that people need government to protect them from occupational hazards and pollution, that these are consequences of capitalism and people being left free. The message: people can’t be left free!—their activities must be controlled by Big Government—and capitalism inherently creates conditions harmful to people and environment and, therefore, must be controlled. But if, instead, these cancer hazards are really very small, then we don’t need massive programs financed by massive government spending (and the politicians and bureaucrats promoting them would be out of a job.) Big Government simply channels the resources of society into programs that are of less benefit to the people who pay for them than the alternative allocation of human resources that would occur in a free market.

The allocation of financial and other resources that occurs under capitalism provides not only unequaled economic benefits but health and environmental benefits—as a consequence! Economic growth is not the enemy of human health and the environment but works silently—and automatically—to achieve them, just like Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” works in the economic sense. Here are some facts documented in my book MAKERS AND TAKERS (American Liberty Publishers,, which shows the progress made in healthful conditions by the free market, before the federal government decided to protect us, and the consequences of government intervention:

In the half century before OSHA, accidental worker deaths dropped 67 percent. Fewer workers lost their lives in 1971 than in 1912, even though there were twice as many worker and they produced seven times as much. Two full years after OSHA regulations were introduced, job-related injuries and illnesses had INCREASED from 5.6 million to 5.9 million and lost workdays in manufacturing increased 7.1 percent. The U.S. Labor Department reported a 14 percent increase in job injuries and illnesses from 1975 to 1988.

Cars were becoming safer, not more dangerous, as Ralph Nader and others championing auto safety regulations claimed. There were actually fewer total highway deaths in 1960 than in 1939, even though in 1960 there were 3 times as many vehicles, traveling 3 times the mileage and at much higher speeds. Highway deaths per number of registered vehicles decreased steadily from 1913, when the government first began keeping track, until 1960. The 1960s, when we got the first federal auto safety regulations, became the first decade in history when auto accidents FAILED to decrease, whether measured by accidents per registered vehicle or mileage traveled.

Prior to the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, mining accidents had been steadily decreasing for decades. Because of the regulations imposed by that act, hundreds of coal mines were forced to close, thousands of workers lost their jobs, and coal was more expensive for the consumer. And coal mining wasn’t any safer. In 1980 there were 32 percent more accidents in coal mining than in 1970 even though less than half as much coal per worker was being produced, due to the regulations.

On the environmental side, automobile exhausts were reduced more in the 20 years before passage of the Clean Air Act than in the 30 years following that legislation. The automakers didn’t make cleaner-burning cars because of concern about the environment; that was simply a byproduct of their capitalistic desire to sell more cars. They achieved that by devising more efficient engines that provided better mileage and faster cars by burning fuel more efficiently, which incidentally meant sending less of the fuel components out the exhaust pipe. This economic incentive of the marketplace proved to be far more effecting in reducing auto emissions than all the laws that have been passed. When advocates of the regulations credit them with reducing air pollution, it should be remembered that automotive air pollution was being reduced faster before the regulations, simply as a consequence of the marketplace.

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