Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Herbal industry poisons the free market

It's rare to find an issue where I side with a Republican over a Libertarian, but today's David Frum column on herbal supplements brought on that unfamiliar feelings.

As Frum correctly spelled it out, the FDA was neutered interfering when herbal hucksters make fraudulent health claims by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. This labeled herbal supplements as "dietary supplements;" so herbs are now considered food and not drugs.

But herbs really are drugs - that is, unless they do nothing. Then they're just a placebo.

I've had to come to terms with this. For once, my concern is that the laws don't let the bureaucrats in the Food and Drug Administration do enough. As much as I love the free market, I still see every dollar that's spent on these silly herbs as a vote for needed government interference. This doesn't make me a Democrat, just merely a Republican on this issue.

While some modern libertarians say that consumer protection activists will warn enough consumers away from scams like herbs, the idea of government shutting down fraudulent merchants was supported by Milton Friedman.

The difference here is that the companies are lying about the products. Fraud is different from just selling a risky product. While I don't want a nanny state, I don't think live wires should be left lying on the ground with a sign saying they're safe to touch.

Frum made a subtle reference to vitamin supplements being hocked on AM radio. By this he means, sadly conservative talk radio like Rush Limbaugh (who I mostly like) and Michael Savage (who I never like). While I'd like think of herbal healing as purely a granola head obsession, the truth is I have seen it from plenty of right wingers.

Not only did Frum get the role of the government right, he also demonstrated a familiarity with modern science that I had given up on finding in another conservative.

As individuals, we have trouble distinguishing between anecdotes: "My neighbor took zinc for her cold and she said it really helped," and data: Most colds last four days, so you could smoke yak-dung cigarettes on day three and feel better on day four.

We are poor balancers of risk: Look at the rising number of Americans who resist taking vaccines because of astronomically remote chances that something might go wrong.

We are vulnerable to placebos: "Hey -- I took the 30-day free sample and I feel sure my vision did improve!"

We are swayed by prejudice and ideology: The film-maker Spike Lee wrote in Rolling Stone in 1992: "I'm convinced AIDS is a government-engineered disease."

The reason we should defer to experts is not that the experts know everything. Of course they don't. It's just that they know more than non-experts do.

It's not that science has all the answers. It doesn't. It's just that astrologers, shamans, and natural healers have none of them.

Was there anything in this column that wouldn't make a member of the scientific skeptic movement cheer? Frum nailed this issue, which is rare for a conservative speaking about science. It was all the more impressive because it meant distancing himself from some conservatives and libertarians because that's where the facts lead him.


  1. A most unexpected post. I feel keep thebeurecrats out of it. If people want to be suckers let em.

  2. Normally I'd agree with you. Buyers should beware. But a fraud is a fraud, and punishing known liars for misleading consumers about this products is the kind of law I can get behind.

    The key here is misinformation, and the size of the problem.

    The consumers who buy them are at some fault for being too lazy or foolish to doubt the herbal hucksters' claims. Still, the size of the problem make me reluctantly look for some Federal help.

    I think it's a different story from tobacco, where everyone knows the risks and rewards pretty well and they can use their own judgment.