Antibusiness consumer groups have come to be such an aggravation to those concerned with liberty that it is at times difficult to remember that consumer education is not an evil in itself. Though the best-known "consumer advocates" frequently take stands that are close to totalitarian in their reliance on compulsion, the world's oldest consumer magazine is firm in defense of free enterprise and critical of government interference in the marketplace. It is one F.J. Schlink, founder of Consumers' Research magazine and its parent organization, who will go down in history as the original pioneer in the field of consumer education.
Like other consumer organizations that have followed in its wake, Consumers' Research analyzes products and services of all sorts, from cars to can-openers, making the results available in a publication. Unlike many of those other groups, however, Schlink and his staff treat the government like any other producer and apply the same consumer standards to "public" services as they do to private services. A recent issue reported for example, on the government's push for installing air bags in automobiles, pointing out that the chemical that will be used in these air bags, sodium azide, may be a cancer-causing agent, thus posing a threat if the air bag is punctured. The magazine is sold by subscription and can be found in practically every library in the country even if it is not as well known as its counterpart from Consumers Union, Consumer Reports. The editorial position of the latter is generally favorable toward and even demanding of government regulation of various and sundry producers, and it frequently offers readers articles by, for example, socialist economist John Kenneth Galbraith.
Ironically, Consumers Union is an offshoot of Consumers' Research. As Mr. Schlink recounts, several CR employees—an ex-staffer of the Daily Worker and several other leftists—tried to force the magazine into an anticapitalist stance in post-depression 1936, when socialism was the intellectual rage. When their proposed shift of outlook was rejected by CR's management, the group struck, and the case was one of the first heard by the newly established National Labor Relations Board.
During the course of the dispute, the dissidents physically attacked their office building in Washington, New Jersey, shooting through windows and vandalizing employees' automobiles. According to Schlink, "The rioting stopped when the local constabulary got mad about the fact that they had women blockaded in the building at night." The take-over attempt failed, and the group lost its case before the NLRB. The disenchanted employees packed their bags and departed to start their own organization—Consumers Union (from which Ralph Nader resigned five years ago because of its "soft line"). Schlink jokes: "You can see that it's a tender and loving bunch that began Consumers Union."
Schlink was first subject to public exposure in 1927 when Your Money's Worth, a book he wrote with Stuart Chase, was published and attained bestseller status. The book became a standard in schools and a Book of the Month Club selection. It was the first attempt to rate consumer products using scientific methods. According to Schlink, the perception at the time was that only government could afford to test and set specifications for the products it purchased, and his book was the breakthrough in making affordable product information available to all consumers.
Around the same time, Schlink helped form a consumers' club in White Plains, New York—"a town," he says, "that had a lot of intellectual people, not including myself." The club led to a basement office in New York City and a mimeographed pamphlet in 1927. A year later, the pamphlet on consumer information was printed for the first time. Five years later, after Schlink had added to the staff, the organization moved to a former piano factory in New Jersey, the eventual scene of the violence of the collectivists who formed Consumers Union.
F.J. Schlink, at 90, is technical director of Consumers' Research, overseeing the product-testing end of the operation. His credentials easily qualify him for the job. He has a bachelor's degree in science and a master's in engineering from the University of Illinois. He is a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the American Physical Society, and the prestigious Franklin Institute. He is presently on the board of directors of the American National Standards Institute, the organization that facilitates the voluntary standards that result in, for example, different companies' light bulbs fitting into the same socket. His books include Eat, Drink, and Be Wary and 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs.
Schlink is very critical of the federal government's attempts to take over the field of "voluntary standards"—the technical specifications of product safety, performance, and design of innumerable products in use today. He is very critical of government product testing, and Consumers' Research refuses to accept money from the government, as well as from business or labor. He has spoken out against regulatory agencies' adversary approach, criticizing their willingness to do anything but help businesses correct a problem. "We don't proceed that way," an official of the Securities and Exchange Commission once told him. "We wait until we've got enough evidence to go to court."
Schlink is equally critical of other consumer groups who encourage government involvement in consumer matters. Consumers' Research does not spend one cent on lobbying or legal action against manufacturers; their money, obtained through consumers' purchase of its publications, goes into product testing and reporting the results.
Schlink and the magazine are conservative, not libertarian. They do not ask for the removal of government agencies, just their reform. And while they are often critical of the government's stance on the safety of certain items—as with air bags—a recent Consumers' Research feature unquestioningly reported the position of the National Council on Drug Abuse (an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services) on the potential dangers of marijuana use.
Schlink, in his ninth decade, is described by others as alert and vigorous, working every day. His analysis of regulatory trends is encouraging and his explanation startling. He believes that most of the regulatory agencies are improving, becoming much more reasonable than in the past. His conjecture is that Ralph Nader and his crew have so successfully discredited existing regulatory agencies as ineffective or insufficient to control the economy that many people expect less of government in the field of consumer protection, taking pressure off regulatory agencies to "do something" about perceived problems. If he's right, it's poetic justice. In the meantime, F.J. Schlink will continue to tell people "not to rely on government agencies…but to use their own intelligence, the only thing they can ever really rely on."
Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.