Reader Question: Necessary Regulations?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Jeffrey asks: My libertarian friend was arguing with his daughter. She made the statement that automobile manufacturers would not have made cleaner cars without being forced to do so by government. Neither my friend nor I have a quick response – so I’m writing to you. I’m sure you will point out the obvious that we are overlooking.

My reply: Your friend’s daughter assumes it is not in the interest of a manufacturer (of anything) to respond to market signals. In the case of vehicles, that “polluting” models would continue to be sold when the market wanted non-polluting models.

Consider the related case of “safety.” Many believe that if the government didn’t impose various requirements that car companies would just build “unsafe” cars. In fact, most people value a “safe” car – but vary in how much “safety” they want. Some are perfectly content with a car that is readily controllable, easy to drive and predictable in the way it handles, brakes and so on. For them, that is “safety” enough. Others want a car that is physically more able to protect its occupants in the event of a crash. Volvo made a lot of money selling such cars, which catered to the people who wanted that degree of “safety.”

Of course, pollution is a little different in that it is an issue that affects other people. And some people won’t be willing to pay more – if they don’t have to – for a car that emits less pollution than another car that emits less.

However, if the general consensus of the market is that pollution beyond a certain amount is not acceptable, then it is likely all cars will rise to the standard that is acceptable – for the same reason that a certain minimum acceptable standard of acceptability invariably applies to practically any product you can think of.

So, I think it’s unlikely we’d have had pollution spewing cars regardless of government involvement. But I submit that because government got involved, the standards became increasingly absurd and even counterproductive – i.e., the problem of diminishing returns, which often happens when the market is not allowed to act as a brake on unjustified measures as defined by their cost exceeding their benefit.

Hope this was helpful!

. . .

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14 COMMENTS

  1. So the daughter just assumes that people living in places like Los Angeles in the 60’s and 70’s where the smog was so thick you could cut it with a knife, would just continue to live like that but for Uncle’s demands? Suppose Uncle had never gotten involved, what would have happened? People would have sought out less polluting vehicles (and the market would have responded by making such vehicles), or large numbers of people would have left such environs, thus reducing population density (and traffic). It is not as though there is only ever one solution to a given problem.

    It is not just regulation which has mitigated that problem- but also as much or more so the advancement of technology which did not formerly exist, which has greatly reduced emissions and increased efficiency. It is inevitable that once developed and offered to the public, that technology, even sans regulation, would have provided a new benchmark standard for which all manufacturers would have had to compete to hew to- both for the sake of reducing smog in areas so affected, and for the sake of superior economy- and if nothing else, the market will always respond to economy.

    Take the case of the Honda CVCC of the early 70’s- a little car with an engine that ran so cleanly that it did not require any emission controls. Honda was not forced to build that car- they did so to fill a demand in the market- and that was still while things were low-tech.

    Now we have all these regulations- many of which are counter-prouctive, as they strngle engines, increase weight and reduce mileage and durability- and the manufacturers are forced to build ’em (and we are thus forced to buy ’em)- while the government continues to subsidize infrastructure which INCREASES population density; destroys the natural greenery which absorbs and mitigates pollution; reduces CO2 which sustains that greenery and causes it to produce fresh oxygen; and creates cement deserts.

  2. Curious

    How much lighter would say… a Challenger RT, middle of the road 5.7 with a stick, be if Uncle never got involved and they didn’t need to bloat the big girl up with useless crap.

    Always wonder what’s stopping someone from gutting the multiple airbags, disabling all the sensors and whatnot, assuming they do a professional job and don’t get caught when they bring it in for the mandatory inspections

  3. She has fallen for the oldest trick in the government playbook.
    FMVSS (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards) did not suddenly appear in the 1960s and grant americans safe cars by the government. FMVSS copied existing SAE standards. That is private standards. The federal government in reality retarded the advancement of automobile safety. This conversion effort slowed the improvement of the automobile compared to before it was started (and after it was completed).

    Private standards still govern most products people buy. The most well known would be Underwriters Laboratory (UL). There are several others. Why do these standards exist? Why do they keep evolving? Why are they followed? It’s largely because these standards bodies allow a manufacturer to show they have met the current best known standards of safety. That simple.

    Automobiles were governed under the Society of Automotive Engineers standards until government took over. SAE standards still exist BTW, and generally lead government standards.

    As to ‘clean’ cars. Pollution in the bad old days was a direct result of government. The government’s courts decided against property rights in the earliest pollution cases. The courts set the precedent that someone had to show they were harmed by the pollution, not merely that the pollution got on to their property. Government also refused to defend the commons, the air and water. That’s a part of it’s job even in the most minimal state of government.

    Had the courts decided otherwise automakers would have had to follow some best practice private standards from the beginning. I believe some if not all those cases predated the automobile but at the very latest they were in the early years of the automobile. That would have resulted in cleaner cars long before the government started changing its position.

    That aside, even with the pass for pollution, technology advanced allowing for cleaner and cleaner cars, abit at a slower pace and as a by product of making better cars. That would have continued as technology advanced even as just a side effect of making better cars year over year.

    Had the government never been involved cars would have reached roughly their present point anyway. Might have gotten there sooner as well.

  4. The problem with government regulations when it comes to auto pollution is this. The government is in a big hurry to solve some “problem”, so they proclaim things before the technology exists. So we ended up with the crappy cars of the 70’s and 80’s due to premature regulation.

    The automakers would have spared us that had they done it on a reasonable time frame of their own, which you don’t get with government regulation. Would they have done it without any regulation? I think they would have, there was public support for cleaning up auto pollution because it was a problem. The irony is, they probably would have solved it faster. It just would have taken longer to get out the gate with working tech, not the crap they had to foist on the public.

    The same thing is happing again with electric cars. We must have them by 2030, but there is no way there will be a car that can equal let alone be better than what we have.

    Would the auto industry be bringing in electric cars without regulation? In this case probably not, as the public has little interest in electric cars because there is nothing compelling about them.

    They want to ban private cars, pure and simple. Electric cars are a means for that. They will “discover” that electric cars are more polluting than what we had, but yet we will not be allowed to bring back what we had either………..

  5. I just filled my dads RR Diesel with DEF fluid, PITA as I can’t just pour it all in, slow pour process

    If Govt didnt get involved at all, we’d have V12 Luxury cars, Diesels for the masses without DEF and all that shit, EV’s would be so niche, you’d hardly see one like it were a Bugatti or Pagani, and Manuals wouldn’t be going extinct.

    Govt is the problem, need to tear that shit down!

  6. Eric,

    Would the car companies have acted on their own though? They didn’t even install seat belts until the 1960s, even though their benefits were well known. I don’t know if they were available to those who wanted them, but from what I know, the car companies didn’t put ’em in until they were forced to.

    • Hi Mark,

      It begs the question… if there’s demand yes; if not, no.

      Is this bad? Many people reasonably don’t want seatbelts – or rather aren’t interested in paying for a device they don’t use. So?

      Pollution is a different thing, though. Unlike not wearing a seatbelt, there’s no denying that pollution above a certain threshold causes general harm. Most people don’t like or want it for that reason – and most would probably be willing to pay for reasonable abatement – especially if there are other clear benefits. For example, basic fuel injection – which along with catalytic converters is responsible for most of the reduction in pollution – also provides improved drivability and lower maintenance costs, as well as fuel savings.

      But would they willingly pay for direct-injection, cylinder deactivation/ASS … and so on? No – and why should they? The benefits are small and the cost enormous. The meaningful difference in emissions between a mid-’90s era car with a TBI system and cats vs. a 2022 direct-injected/ASS-equipped car is very slight – but very expensive.

      • The DI, ASS, etc. is a bit much. My bike has a TBI and cat system, yet it meets current emissions regs; I don’t know why cars can’t do so. Either they’re held to a higher standard, or the CAFE standards come in to play.

      • “Some are perfectly content with a car that is readily controllable, easy to drive and predictable in the way it handles, brakes and so on.”
        Wouldn’t these features affect others just as pollution affects others? BTW, I generally agree with you on seatbelts. Thanks for your prolific writing, I enjoy reading your articles.

        • Hi slug,

          Some says so. I think they’re making a specious – dangerous – argument. It is that by not having a car equipped with, say, air bags, I run the risk of being more seriously injured or killed if there is an accident and that could – here it comes – impose costs on society. No, it can’t. Only government can transfer such costs.

          And only government can make people pay for harms they have not actually caused nor visited upon others – on the justification that they “might” cause them.

          If I am hurt in a car accident, that ought to be my problem, period. When government makes it other people’s problems, all of us now have the same problem – government. Which metastasizes – expands its brief to “keep us safe” (and lately, “healthy”) to a limitless degree of endless micromanagement.

          The alternative strikes me as preferable. We each decide for ourselves what degree of risk we’re ok with – and we accept both the benefits and the costs if any.

      • The government doesn’t require me to cut the plastic 6-pack rings of my beer with scissors before I throw them away, but I do anyways. I don’t need the government to point a gun at me to want to do something good.

        When I camp or hike, I always pick up the trash left behind by others. As well, I know, most of that trash is left behind is most likely by the very same people who tell me not to litter.

    • Manufacturers offered seatbelts as an option well before they were mandated, people just didn’t want them. As you may recall, Nash offered them starting in 1950. Ford tried offering belts as part of a safety push in 1956 that saw their sales go down. Cadillac and Rambler introduced dual-chamber master cylinders starting in 1962, well before any federal mandate. Going further back, Ford introduced laminated safety glass windshields starting in 1919, well ahead of any mandate. So yes, there is reason to believe that car companies would have acted on their own, because they have.

      • I didn’t know that seat belts had been offered as far back as 1950. Thank you! I didn’t know that folks simply refused to buy them.

        Even if they were free to choose, I’d still get belts; they saved my ass a time or two, so no one has to persuade me of their benefits. Even in today’s funny money, I don’t imagine they’d be an expensive option. What do they consist of, a bit of fabric, clips, receptacles, and rollers? I’d gladly pay for them if offered the choice to do so.

        Also, if you use them regularly, you won’t have a problem unbelting yourself should the need arise; it becomes second nature after a while. It’s like buckling your belt or something.

        As for air bags, I wish I could refuse those. Why? One, they’re a controlled bomb that blows up in your face. Two, I wear glasses, and I don’t want an air bag going off while I have them on.

        Not that the gov’t should do this (they shouldn’t, as it’s not in COTUS), one wonders why they didn’t do public relations campaign to persuade people to order and use seat belts? They did that with smoking. I’m just sayin’…

    • Seat belts go way back. Buyers refused to buy them. Ford had a safety marketing campaign in the 1950s. It failed miserably. They tried. They all tried to one extent or another. Joan Claybrook would have never pushed airbags if the automakers had not offered them in the early 1970s. They ran into problems, they were expensive but worst of all they could hurt/kill people. This then came to pass because fedgov demanded the high powered airbags to stop unbelted adult males, not ones to go with seatbelts.

      So the automakers did it on their own. The problem was people wouldn’t buy them in mass. To the control freaks this was not acceptable. The government requirements were to force people to buy safety regardless if they wanted it. Not to force the automakers. The automakers would do whatever people were willing to buy.

      Of course until recently the control freaks weren’t willing to come out in public their intent was to force the purchase of safety (they do it now with the jabs). So they claimed the automakers just wouldn’t do it. That the automakers lied about it not selling. Of course few people ever learn the history. Most automakers tried to sell safety. It simply found few buyers.

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