Ari Armstrong, Exclusives, Featured, Uncategorized

Armstrong: Losing my Zen over bureaucratic abuses

Zen Magnets are meant to promote contemplative meditation. They’re sets of small super-strong magnets that you can manipulate into intricate patterns and sculptures. You can also use them educationally to illustrate principles of magnetic forces. They’re awesome.

So, of course, federal bureaucrats hounded this Colorado company out of existence. The company is closing down. I mean, it’s not like we live in the land of liberty and justice for all or anything. We live in the land of bureaucratic caprice. And if that doesn’t make you angry, you’re not paying attention. I’ve lost my Zen.

True, these little magnets are dangerous if you swallow them. News flash: Lots of things, including many household items, are dangerous if you swallow them. This is where a little common sense, personal responsibility, and parental guidance comes into play. Specifically, two or more ingested magnets can pinch together through a person’s intestines, requiring surgical removal.

You know what else are dangerous? Balloons. Can people still buy balloons? Yes, obviously. Because it would be idiotic to ban balloons or to drive a balloon company out of business because some parents are irresponsible with balloons.

Indeed, here is what the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)—the same bureaucracy that drove Zen Magnets out of business—says about balloons. It “warns parents and caregivers of young children about the suffocation hazard presented by uninflated toy balloons and pieces of broken balloons. . . . Because of the danger of suffocation, the CPSC recommends that parents and guardians do not allow children under the age of eight to play with uninflated balloons without supervision.”

That’s a reasonable warning. Similarly, Zen Magnets warned on its boxes: “These epic magnets are not children’s toys. . . . Keep these away from kids who don’t understand the dangers of magnets. Keep away from face! Swallowed magnets can stick together across intestines causing serious injury or death.”

That warning wasn’t good enough for CPSC, which waged an eight-year legal assault on Zen Magnets, finally driving the company into shutdown mode this month. For no good reason, CPSC even forced Zen to destroy by fire hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of product. (For details about the legal battles see a statement from Zen or articles by Alan Prendergast for Westword.)

We don’t ban balloons, plastic bags, marbles, or hotdogs because children can choke. We don’t ban swimming pools or buckets because children can drown. We don’t ban household bleach because children can poison themselves. We don’t ban guns because children can (and occasionally do) shoot themselves. In a free society, sellers state the risks upfront, and consumers decide whether to buy the product and manage the risks.

Government’s job in this respect is to ban fraud and to facilitate private lawsuits where warranted. If CPSC wants to issue its own warnings about products, fine. If it wants to require that companies post reasonable warnings, I can live with that—although I think such matters are better left to consumer pressure and the courts. But CPSC has no proper business harassing a company that sells products that work exactly as described. Congress needs to put this bureaucratic Rottweiler back on its leash.

If our “business friendly” governor or any of Colorado’s representatives in Congress lifted one finger or said a single word in defense of Zen Magnets through this nasty affair, I missed it.

A one-sided hit piece by Consumer Reports notes that injuries from magnets went up after Zen’s short-lived legal victory in 2016 against CPSC. Qu claims the problem is that CPSC needlessly stopped enforcing reasonable rules about marketing high-powered magnets as children’s toys, a lapse that some of Zen’s competitors exploited. Regardless, Zen should not be punished because of the irresponsibility of other sellers or of buyers who refuse to heed the safety warnings.

Bryan Rudolph, a doctor and anti-magnet advocate, told Consumer Reports, “When you look at the utility of these products as opposed to other products that have risks, like kitchen knives or swimming pools, I would argue that the magnets are far less utilitarian. There should be a very high bar, in my own personal opinion, for removing a product from the market, but we’re long past that bar here.”

In a free society, bureaucrats and “consumer safety advocates” do not get to decide for individuals what products provide sufficient “utility” to merit the risks. Individuals get to decide that for themselves. Do you “need” to ride a motorcycle, go hang gliding, drive a speed boat, play contact football, or climb Mount Everest? Surely driving a Prius offers greater “utility” than riding a Harley, right?

It’s worth remembering here that many buyers of these magnets don’t even have children. Those who do have children easily can keep the magnets out of the hands of children just as they do with countless other potentially dangerous household items. When used by adults and mature older minors who remember not to swallow them, these magnets pose precisely zero risk. Meanwhile, countless legal “nonutilitarian” items are inherently risky when used as directed.

Conservative gun owners may rue the day they stood by and watched this bureaucratic assault on Zen. Anti-gun advocates surely will argue, “We even outlawed high-powered recreational magnets! You’re telling me we can’t outlaw guns too? Do it for the children! Guns do not offer sufficient utility to merit the risks.”

We do not need to be “protected” from ourselves or from sellers whose products work as advertised. We need to be protected from out-of-control federal bureaucracies that trample our liberties. Patrick Henry would be ashamed.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism.  He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.


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