Governing Safety: Consumers, Industry Self-Regulation, and the U.S. National Commission on Product Safety, 1968–1970

Responding to pressure from lawmakers, bureaucrats, medical professionals, consumer advocates, and the media, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson appointed the National Commission on Product Safety (NCPS) to analyze the hazards of everyday consumer products and the extent to which existing laws and voluntary standards protected the American public from harm. From 1968 to 1970, the NCPS held twenty-two days of hearings, many of which revolved around the efforts of corporations and nonprofits to ensure the safety of consumer goods without federal intervention. Underwriters Laboratories, the United States of America Standards Institute, and several trade associations and retailers discussed their programs to test and to certify domestic appliances and testified to the advantages of industry self-regulation. The commissioners and many other participants at the hearings, however, questioned whether nonstate measures did or even could adequately prevent injuries. Consumer protection, they asserted, warranted at least some regulatory constraints on free enterprise. This presentation uses the transcripts of the NCPS hearings to investigate the historical rationales for voluntary product standards and the drive for federal regulation culminating in the 1972 Consumer Product Safety Act. I show how the interests and political ideologies of the business community, experts from nonprofits like the National Safety Council, and the consumer movement influenced their perspectives on the efficacy of voluntary safety programs and the need for state action. Each of these groups, moreover, professed to speak on behalf of their fellow Americans as consumers, taxpayers, patients, and citizens. Drawing on recent literature about the “ventriloquism” of political discourse related to consumers, I explore how the NCPS hearings incorporated different visions of safety and the public good. Safety thus came to define the sale, use, and perception of consumer products as much as their manufacture.