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Crusader for Consumer Rights


Photo: courtesy Pantheon Books.

Who would have thought a book about the automobile industry would permanently change the American economy by leading to the birth of the consumer movement? And yet that is exactly what followed the publication of Unsafe At Any Speed. Written by Ralph Nader, the book accused General Motors and the automobile industry as a whole of emphasizing styling over safety.

Although the book was well written, it probably would have gone unnoticed were it not for the efforts made by General Motors to discredit its author. When it was learned that the giant General Motors Corporation had hired private detec­tives to investigate a lone crusader because he had faulted one of their products, public sympathy and support rallied around the underdog. Public outrage was also exactly what Congress needed to overcome the objections of the automo­bile industry to a bill it had been considering for some time. The Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 sought to improve traffic safety and protect consumers.



Support for Ralph Nader continued to grow during the 70's. An honors graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Nader had rejected the comfortable life that a private law career could have given him. At the time that he wrote Unsafe At Any Speed, he was working for a Senate committee studying traffic safety. The public also learned that Nader lived alone in a one-room Washington apartment, owned no car, and somehow managed to live on $5,000 a year. The image of this modern David challenging and defeating a powerful industrial Goliath further added to his fame and popularity.

In addition to the public contributions he began to receive, an out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit he brought against General Motors netted Nader $284,000. This money allowed him to expand his work on behalf of consumer causes and to establish a number of organizations to work for his goals. He was instrumental in the enactment of the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 as well as a number of other laws designed to protect workers in the natural gas and coal mining industries.

Ralph Nader's image and popularity declined during the 80's. He was unable to get Congress to create the Consumer Protection Agency or to require the installation of air bag restraints in new automobiles. By 1980 Congress was more concerned with finding ways to save America's automobile industry from foreign competition than it was with reforming it. Despite the shifting attitudes, however, as the 1980's drew to a close, it was evident that Ralph Nader continued to be an effective consumer advocate. One sign of this came with the 1989 announcement that American auto manufacturers were going to offer air bags in 1990 models.



Government And The Consumer

Government efforts to protect the consumer can be traced back to George Washington's administration. As life became more complicated, so too did the need for government participation in consumer protection. In more recent times a major leap forward :took place during the years of the Kennedy Administration.

In 1962, President Kennedy sent a message to Congress in which he included a "bill of rights" for consumers. These were :the right to safety, the right to be informed, the right to choose, and the right to be heard.

· The right to safety. Consumers have a right to be protected from unsafe products. Accordingly, in 1972, Congress created the Consumer Products Safety Commis­sion. The purpose of the commission is to "protect the public from unreasonable risks of injury from consumer products."

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· The right to be informed. This has been interpreted to mean that consumers have a right to know 1) exactly what it is they are buying; 2) the terms of the sale and any guarantees accompanying it; and 3) the kinds of risks that might accompany the use of a product.

· The right to choose. Competition is the backbone of the free enterprise system. For that reason, the federal and state governments have enacted antitrust legislation making attempts to eliminate competition illegal.

· The right to be heard. Both business and government recognize the need to learn what consumers are thinking. Most large firms have special departments that receive and respond to consumer inquiries and complaints. Many firms even provide toll-free "800" numbers to make contacting them easier.

For its part, government regularly conducts public committee hearings on legislation affecting consumers. Anyone can write, call or appear before the committees.

Federal, state and many local governments maintain agencies to assist and protect the consumer.


The money we spend as consumers comes from wealth or income we earn at our jobs.

A spending plan, or budget, can help people get the most from their incomes. The steps involved in budgeting call for setting goals, estimating income, and planning expenditures and savings. Everyone ought to set aside part of his or her income as savings. It pays to be familiar with the options available to savers and to shop for those products that give you the balance of safety and liquidity you desire.

Insurance provides a way to protect you and your family from emergencies. You can purchase insurance on your life and to pay your medical bills. You can also purchase property insurance to protect your car, home, and other major possessions from damage or theft. Liability insurance protects you if you should injure others or damage their property.

One of the principal services offered by savings institutions and banks is checking accounts.

Credit allows you to purchase the things you want now and pay for them over a specified period of time. Credit can be useful but it does require good character, capital and the capacity to repay the loan. Credit can be expensive. Two of the most impor­tant things to look for when shopping for a loan are the finance charge and the APR.

The purpose of advertising is to sell goods and services. While certain advertising techniques benefit consumers, others do not. Consequently, consumers ought to be familiar with the kinds of strategies that advertisers use to sell their products.

The principal responsibility for consumer protection lies with government agencies at the federal, state and local levels. There are, however, a number of organizations, sponsored by the private sector, whose purpose is to protect consumers. These include such well-known institutions as the Better Business Bureau and local Chambers of Commerce.

Because consumers make up the largest economic sector (business and government are the other two), the level of consumer spending has a direct impact on the economy as a whole.

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