Viewpoint: A Brief on Consumer Reports

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For the past two years a friend has sent me a gift subscription to CONSUMER REPORTS, the publication of Consumers Union. This outlet is in general a great idea. Were it not for most people's renunciation of their responsibility to look out for their own best interests, thus giving Washington's incompetents more and more jobs in regulatory work, such ventures would serve many of us well and make some people a fortune. The press, too, would be different without the pretentions of the state to fatherhood—investigative reporting would be more responsible (since businesses could have recourse against libelous stories) and extend far beyond the borders of the (boring) governmental scene. In a free society newspapers, magazines, broadcasting, and the like could make a financial killing by leading people to good buys and away from shady businesses.

CONSUMER REPORTS, along with some other outlets, carries out the task of being business watchdog in our politicized market place. What is distressing about CR is that the politics behind the otherwise useful work done in its pages stinks. Ralph Nader is CR's favorite crusader for virtue and justice. The thousands of consumer "protection" bills coming out of Congress are what CR's editorials nurture relentlessly each month—of course with no thought of contrary arguments. The magazine prides itself on lack of bias, neutrality, absence of advertisements, impeccable fairness in evaluating various products, and other virtues along these lines. But it behaves with distasteful amateurishness vis-a-vis the political sphere of life.

When, for instance, CR advocates (compulsory) no-fault auto insurance, no thought is given to presenting the opposite viewpoint. Nader has never received even a slap on the wrist in CR, despite the preponderance of faulty research in many of the books and reports he has sponsored through the Center for Responsive Law. And in his books' behalf CR has violated its pledge against accepting advertisement (stated usually on page 3 of each issue): "CU accepts no advertising or product samples, and is not beholden in any way to any commercial interest." As if Grossman, publisher of Nader's stuff, lived off manna from heaven!

But all of this need not be more than a mere manifestation of the standard bullshit do-gooders commonly put out. What is crucial is that CR engages in the one area it has absolutely no expertise in—namely, political advocacy—under the guises of neutrality and objectivity! Articles advocating more government regulation are unsigned; there is no research cited in behalf of the judgments made; no principles are identified to guide the reader in understanding where CR stands in political matters; and the thinking is mostly assertive, unargued, sanctimonious and elitist, far beyond standard liberal fare. Even such obviously political mags as NEW GUARD, NATIONAL REVIEW, NATION, NEW REPUBLIC and REASON publish some debates on certain issues. (Of course the scope of perspectives allowed is understandably limited.) And none of these pretend to neutrality and lack of political affiliation, as CR never tires of claiming that it does.

What CR's performance shows is that even where professionalism is sound and beyond reproach, the politics behind the product can destroy the value produced. How can CR's reports be trusted if its political commitments are so unabashedly statist? No doubt a great many of the reports are correct and untainted. But when distrust is warranted, even the truth comes under suspicion.

Tibor Machan teaches philosophy at SUNY-Fredonia. Dr. Machan's Viewpoint appears in this column every third month, alternating with the vievvs of Murray N. Rothbard and David Brudnoy.