Alexander C. Cartwright
Being asked to show an I.D before buying certain cold and allergy medications has become fairly common, and once one is told that these regulations exist in order to deter the production of illegal substances, the regulation seems to hold some merit. However, given that a new Illinois law requires consumers to show their I.D before buying drain cleaner, it’s worth taking the time to consider if showing an I.D before buying something really makes us any better off.
The new Illinois law is the result of assaults on two Chicago women who were attacked, and injured with drain cleaner. In an effort to deter criminals from using drain cleaner as a weapon, and in an effort to track those ‘potential criminals’ who buy drain cleaner, the new law requires retail stores to record personal information from customers.
Assuming that two assaults merit some kind of legislative action, simply recording information doesn’t seem to be an appropriate solution to an assaulting problem. Once a criminal knows he will have to share his information in order to buy drain cleaner, it seems that he will be very conscious about concealing his identity while committing a crime. Of course, the more obvious thing to do, would be to substitute drain cleaner with some other chemical product- like bleach. Requiring people to give over personal information before buying drain cleaner might make the costs of buying it higher, but there is no reason to think this will reduce assaults involving chemical products.
As ineffective as this law actually is at stopping a larger criminal problem, it is a perfectly legitimate political solution. After all, politicians are able to say publicly that they are taking action to stop the ‘drain-cleaner-assault-problem’ with swift legislation. The problem is that the monopolistic nature of government does not ensure that such a solution is effective. In fact, government reaps all the benefits of being able to say they ‘took action’ to correct a problem while all the negative aspects of this policy like the potential privacy infringements, loss of economic freedom, and higher transactions costs of doing business, are all incurred by businesses and consumers.
The costs that this law passes along to consumers and businesses are not simply hypothetical and potential. Reason Magazine reports that Jewel-Osco, a local Illinois supermarket chain, is no longer selling drain cleaners (Reason, May 2012). Clearly the costs of continuing to provide consumers with a product they need is now too high for Jewel-Osco. In fact, the stores that fail to comply with the law are subject to a fine of up to $1500.00 just for participating in a voluntary, mutually beneficial exchange that only affects the parties involved in the trade.
Certainly, assaults are not ideal, especially involving drain cleaner, but this regulation seems to do little more than restrict our economic freedom without truly adding any security. In fact, in order for there to be zero assaults on others with drain cleaner, we would have to eliminate the production of all drain cleaners, but we choose not to since there are benefits to using the product. Thus, without banning the production of drain cleaner completely, we must accept that buying something so toxic involves some level of risk. Because the benefits of buying drain cleaner outweigh the risks, we continue to buy it. This type of risk is analogous to driving a car. When you drive a car, you assume some risk of getting in an accident. The only way to have zero car accidents is to have zero cars; thus there is some non-zero socially optimal amount of car accidents that we are willing to accept in order to have our cars. Furthermore, we don’t accept higher restrictions on driver’s licenses after each accident that occurs. Likewise, there is a, non-zero, socially optimal amount of risk that we accept by electing to use drain cleaner. Removing this risk would be so costly that stores would just not sell the product- as some stores in Illinois have started to do. The fact that we accept some level of risk in buying a product like drain cleaner indicates that government shouldn’t react to every bad thing such a product causes.
Assaults are always unfortunate, but requiring consumers to show their I.D’s for more and more products is an ineffective security measure that sacrifices economic freedom, time, and money in the name of government action that is not making us better off.