We need a cure for the common scold

The Madison County Record Jun. 15, 2009, 9:45am

Should someone file a class action suit against certain consumer advocates?

When products and services we might want to purchase are taken off the market -- or their costs increased by harassing lawsuits, negative publicity campaigns, and nitpicking regulations -- we suffer a genuine loss. Shouldn't the persons and groups causing this be held accountable?

And who asked them to speak on our behalf? If we're the "public," why does it often feel like we're the ones not benefitting from actions taken "in the public interest"?

There's a reason for the feeling.

Omri Ben-Shahar teaches consumer protection and insurance law at the University of Chicago Law School. Last summer, he reviewed the mandated disclosure statutes in Illinois, Michigan, and California and came to this conclusion about consumer protection law: "It's pointless."

Ben-Shahar spoke to the Madison County Record this week about the "myths" of consumer protection.

Do consumers want or need long, obtuse disclaimers? No.

Do they read them? No.

Are lawsuits the best means for resolving consumer complaints? No again.

Unfortunately, as Ben-Shahar noted, the trend in consumer protection law is toward more compulsory disclosure and more litigation.

Does the consumer benefit from this tender concern for his safety and well-being? Not when companies are forced to raise their prices or withdraw their offerings in order to cover or avoid the costs of compliance and self-defense.

So whose interest is served if not the public's? Who benefits from consumer protection if it isn't the consumer? Just the self-anointed consumer mercenaries and sue-you artists.

The irony is that consumers already have the power to protect themselves: the power of the purse. They can "vote" with their dollars, using the companies that provide products and services that meet their needs and spurning ones that don't.

That's real power, and real protection.

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