The functioning of millions of our consumer products has been wrecked by government regulations in ways that are extremely hard to detect and difficult to narrow down. The other day, I wrote about discovering the reason lawn mowers have mysteriously stopped working and stopped improving over the last decade or so. (I now have a hack that I can tell you about.)
But that’s just the beginning. Someone pointed out to me that Band-Aids no longer stick. That seems right to me. I began to fish around the regulations for a clue. It is extremely difficult to find the one thing that caused it, since no regulation states outright that “Sticky Band-Aids are hereby banned.” The reason is usually very complicated.
Looking around, I found myriad restrictions on how bandages can be produced. Most pertain to the types of glues used. I found a mandate that forces manufacturers to put a long and terrifying warning label on any product that uses a particular type of glue and wondered if perhaps this is the problem: Manufacturers are declining to use the stuff because they don’t want to terrify the people they are trying to heal.
But I wasn’t sure. I took a break and went to store, where I saw a friend of mine who is a doctor. I asked him outright why Band-Aids no longer stick.
Without missing a beat, he said, “Because government banned the glues that work!”
I can’t prove he is right, but I assume so. Sometimes only industry insiders know these sorts of things. For example, I wouldn’t have known that government banned cloth aprons in commercial kitchens had a restaurant owner not told me the story of having to throw away piles of great stuff and start buying government-approved aprons.
It applies to so many products that don’t work like they used to. Today, unless your toilet makes some explosive bomblike sound when it flushes, it is probably not doing the job and probably not staying clean after use. Unless you add phosphates to your detergents, your dishes and clothes are not getting clean. Government regulations are the reason your refrigerator died too soon and why your white paint turned yellow.
You can dismiss these points as nothing more than “first-world problems,” but it’s actually more serious than that. The essence of civilization comes down to whether the small things in life perform as they should and improve over time. Regulations are stopping this, systematically bringing about regress. These people are wrecking the world one consumer product at a time.
But let’s return to the lawn mower. I touched on only one major aspect of the problem: the clumping problem from the bagging process. There are more problems, such as how the “self-propelled” mower moves more slowly and pathetically than it used to. Government regulations mandate that the wheels must stop moving within three seconds after the propulsion bar is released. That mandate required manufacturers to weaken the engines.
And why is it that we can’t just push our mowers forward with our fingers, rather than having to hold down a long bar with both hands? This, too, is a government mandate. The bar must be there, and it must be held down with both hands. This is the way it has to be because the government has actually drawn up an official blueprint for gas-powered, walk-behind, grass-bagging mowers. There can be no progress under these conditions.
The problem my article focused on was how regulations mandate that steel casing go all the way to the ground to prevent a “foot probe.” This cuts off the airflow that makes the grass fly up and into the bag.
Your ability to collect your grass in a bag was mandatorily sacrificed for your own good. What? You have no interest in sticking your foot underneath a running mower? Doesn’t matter. Government is protecting you.
In any case, here is a short history of life: Government erects barriers to progress, and then the market finds some workaround that is not perfect but helps blunt the effects of government’s attack. It’s true in the lawn mower case as well.
There are two engineering issues to overcome: airflow and grass redirection. A company called Arnold, which specializes in parts for outdoor equipment and prides itself on innovation, invented what it calls the “extreme blade” that does two things. It uses an elevated blade tip for redirecting grass into the bag, and it also puts extra slits into that tip. The slits help use the existing air in the sealed lawn mower casing to create a windy circulation, as well as to chop up the cut grass even further so that the clippings are lighter. The result is absolutely marvelous.
The blade is more expensive. And you have to go through the trouble of taking off the old blade and adding a new one. Most consumers won’t even think to do this and imagine that they aren’t qualified to even try. They will never figure out that there is an answer to their woes. After all, I went through three mowers in 10 years before being clued in that some company had invented a workaround to the problem of government regulation.
This is the archetypical case of how all these things happen. Some product works great, and then the government wrecks it through a stupid new mandate. The thing stops working. Consumers get mad and blame the product maker. A few years go by and some entrepreneurial company jumps out in front with a decent workaround. Meanwhile, millions of consumers are stuck with the stupid old thing and get mad and don’t know the fix. They start to blame the manufacturers for their woes. In the worst case, the company that finds the fix patents the answer, which means that others can’t copy the solution.
This scenario pertains to a vast number of products, including many that we haven’t noticed along the way are gradually depreciating our standard of living. We just get used to it. Government regulators have a field day with our liberties, and we live vaguely vexed lives.
Another workaround — and really the best approach — to get around government regulations is to buy the product that is so revolutionary and amazing that there aren’t government regulations yet crafted that ruin it. This is pretty much how it works in the digital world. Apple and Google and others — not government agencies — are responsible for authorizing applications that come along daily. That’s why the digital world is progressing.
This same level of progress doesn’t usually happen in the physical world because it is so heavily controlled. However, as long as we are talking about lawn mowers, have a look at something truly revolutionary. It is called the Robomower. It is amazing. It mows your lawn for you. That’s right. You turn it on and the whole yard gets mowed on its own.
A reader actually told me that the whole thing works wonderfully well. But the price is unapproachable: $1,500-2,000. The producer has a lockdown on the patent. That situation will exist for some time, thereby preventing the price from falling and restricting this wonderful innovation to only the elite in society. The way that patents slow down innovation and limit access to cool stuff is a subject for another day.
Regardless, if you have a drink in your hand (provided by private enterprise), offer a toast to the free market and its ever-amazing capacity for overcoming the barriers to the good life that government puts up.