Who Serves the Public Interest?

The Washington Post refers to Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen as “a public-interest group” in an article on costly federal regulations that the group is defending. So I wondered: Does the Post think federal regulation is always in the public interest? Or that groups that defend regulation are really acting “in the public interest”? What about groups that work to reduce the burden of government on consumers or taxpayers? Are they “public interest groups”? Certainly, as a member of the public, I don’t really see bigger, costlier government and more expensive products as being in my interest.

So I went to Nexis to investigate. Sure enough, in the past year the Post has used the phrase “public interest group[s]” 41 times. In every case (except one Associated Press story), the groups were on the political left. They demanded more spending or regulation by the federal government, actions that some but not all people would say are in the public interest.

I don’t always disagree with these “public interest groups.” For instance, one story quoted the Media Access Project. They almost always support more regulation of media companies, except when the question is regulation of obscenity or profanity. In this story MAP, “a public interest group,” applauded a court ruling striking down an FCC ruling that the use of profanity on a Fox News broadcast was indecent. Hear, hear. Now if only MAP would defend the rights of media companies to make their own decisions on non-obscene broadcasting.

But how about the National Taxpayers Union, which works to eliminate wasteful spending and reduce the burden of government? Was it a public interest group? Not in the Post. How about the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which works for competition and more choice for consumers? Not a public interest group.

The Post seems to have a very consistent but arguably wrong-headed view about just what is in the public’s interest.

Posted on March 17, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty,General,Regulatory Studies

Thanks, Mayor Bloomberg

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s continuing crusade to manage every aspect of his constituents’ lives has generated another perverse consequence: Customers of Wendy’s in New York will now get less information on nutrition than they did before the newest regulations. Wendy’s has posted this notice “For NYC Customers” on its Nutrition website:

Special notice to inquiries originating from New York City:

We regret that Wendy’s cannot provide product calorie information to residents or customers in New York City. The New York City Department of Health passed a regulation requiring restaurants that already provide calorie information to post product calories on their menu boards — using the same type size as the product listing.

We fully support the intent of this regulation; however, since most of our food is made-to-order, there isn’t enough room on our existing menu boards to comply with the regulation. We have for years provided complete nutritional information on posters inside the restaurant and on our website. To continue to provide caloric information to residents and customers of our New York City restaurants on our website and on our nutritional posters would subject us to this regulation. As a result, we will no longer provide caloric information to residents and customers of our New York City restaurants.

We regret this inconvenience. If you have questions about this regulation, please contact the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and refer to Health Code Section 81.50.

Posted on February 14, 2008  Posted to Cato@Liberty,General,Health Care,Regulatory Studies

Book Club Monopoly?

Bertelsmann AG of Germany has agreed to buy out Time Inc.’s interest in Bookspan, their book-club joint venture that includes Book-of-the-Month Club, American Compass, and other clubs. The Wall Street Journal reports that

The deal, announced today, would leave Bertelsmann as the only major operator of book, music and DVD clubs in the U.S.

Uh-oh! Sounds like a monopoly. Should we call the FTC Launch a congressional hearing No–first because nothing has actually changed; the joint venture was apparently already the only operator of such clubs. The only difference is that Bookspan is now solely owned by Bertelsmann.

But if two sets of book clubs had merged, then we might be hearing the same sorts of calls for antitrust investigation that we heard in regard to the proposed merger of the XM and Sirius satellite radio networks. And the argument would be just as ridiculous. A monopoly book club would not control book consumers; it would still compete with Amazon and Laissez Faire Books and other services for mail-order book consumers; and also with actual bookstores for book consumers generally; and with magazines and newspapers for readers; and with movies, television, radio, and iPods for the time and attention of consumers. Just like–as the Journal said a week or so ago–”a combined Sirius-XM would have to compete not only with free broadcast radio but also with MP3 players, online radio and even music channels offered by cable providers.”

Posted on April 11, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Regulatory Studies

About David Boaz

Click here to learn more.