Kill 'Em With Caution

A few decades ago, back when the Washington Beltway used to move and didn’t become the giant parking lot it is today, people actually used to go at a reasonable speed along the Washington Beltway, except in this one place. This one place, traffic just backed up every morning, and people could not figure out – traffic engineers – what’s going on here? There’s no accident. There’s no stop light. There are no bumps. There’s nothing to see. Why is it that day after day, traffic just backs up in the same place?

When this story got published, all of a sudden people started writing in. There was this one idiot who gets on at the same time, same place, goes to the extreme left lane and puts his cruise control on at 50 or 55, and then drives for 17 miles. As soon as that got published, all of these letters come in. “Oh, I’ve seen that guy. I curse at that guy. I pass that guy. I try to get him to move. He never moves.”

A few days later, a letter comes in to the Washington Post that says, “Hello there, I’m John Nestor. I’m the person who drives in the left hand lane. It’s convenient for me because then I don’t have to move, and the speed limit is 55, and therefore I drive the speed limit, and anybody who wants to break the law is welcome to speed, but I shouldn’t have to move because they want to speed.” That led to a – putting it gently – very spirited debate and created an entirely new verb, which was called Nestoring, which is you follow the letter of the law exactly, even though it screws up the system as a whole.

That would be a hysterical story, except that John Nestor worked at the Food and Drug Administration, and he was in charge of approving renal and cardiac drugs, and for years he never approved a drug because he couldn’t prove it was safe, and the law says the drug has to be safe. The irony is, of course, nothing we do is safe. A staircase isn’t safe. An electric plug isn’t safe. A car isn’t safe. Eating isn’t safe. In fact, we’re all gradually dying, and therefore nothing we ever do is safe. In that context, he wasn’t measuring the relative value of what a drug can do or the cost of not acting. He was following the letter of the law. Don’t act unless it’s safe.

After 17 years, the FDA got upset enough at him that they actually fired him because he was blocking what we now know are completely lifesaving drugs and may have really hurt many, many, many, many people. But Ralph Nader came back and sued the government for reinstating him because the letter of the law said it has to be safe. So he’s reinstated. He retired, and as I understand it, he never approved a drug in his life, and he was cited as an example of somebody who protected the public interest from potentially harmful drugs.

I’m not sure about that. I think this man may have really hurt a lot of people simply because he never measured the cost of not acting and because the law allowed him to do that. That’s why it’s so important that we rationalize this and put some common sense into our regulation and that we celebrate those who act as well as those who prevent because too often this becomes the regulator is the good guy, and business is the bad guy. The regulator wants to protect you. The business wants to make a profit. The reality is much greyer. The reality is everybody’s got mixed motivations, but most of the people on both sides want to bring stuff that will help people to market. They want to be proud of what they do.

Yes, there are bad apples on both sides. But again, it becomes an example of why polarization is so dangerous in a political debate, in a political system, in an economic system, and in a regulatory system, and why we have to bring some rationality, common sense and deregulation into most of our markets.

[Ed. Note: The closer we get to this rationality, the more opportunities there are for you to live better, healthier and wealthier than ever before. And as new breakthroughs come online every day, you’ll want to be on the front lines, knowing just which drugs will better your life – and how you can profit from them. Sign up for the FREE Laissez Faire Today email edition, right here, to get regular chances at the most up-to-date-info on all of these new developments before the rest of the market.]