Nanny Sam and the Death of Buckyballs

Their website is non-assuming and accessible. With a beige and blue theme, slowly cycling images of infants and tents, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission seems friendly and paternal as it presents you with its humble achievements in its quest to “[protect] the public from unreasonable risks” in their daily lives as consumers.

But even as it displays the façade of a good-natured pal, the CPSC’s record is not all gallantry and roses. Yes, it is has recalled some seriously defective products in the past. I would hope that its record would have some bright spots, as the agency was from Richard Nixon’s era. But as its budget has expanded, its recall lists grown, its thirst to protect Americans from “unreasonable risks” grown more insatiable, we have seen the CSPC move into the realm of a nanny, rather than a consumer protector.

In 1988, the CSPC banned certain metal lawn darts. In 2004, it banned water rockets. And in 2012, Buckyballs fell under the axe.

If you don’t know what Buckyballs are, they’re a stress-relieving, time-wasting set of magnetic balls that you can use to make nearly infinite forms, shapes, and objects. They feel good to play with, and they’re great for small-time creative bursts.


But because there were several hundred cases of hospitalization from people (primarily children) ingesting the magnets, the CSPC decided the ban the wildly popular toys for good. Maxfield & Oberton, the company that makes Buckyballs, tried to allay the agency’s fears numerous times: putting warnings all over their websites, their boxes, and their instruction manuals. They specifically marketed the product as an adult desk toy. Sadly, 1,700 medical incidents still arose over the past three years in direct relation to their product. So the CSPC wasn’t buying it. And now, neither can we.

But what’s especially disconcerting isn’t the specific instance of one of my favorite toys being banned or the terrible cases of hospitalization that arose from Buckyball misuse. What’s scary is that when the CSPC, and federal agencies like it, see any example of danger in any of our lives, they view it as their jurisdiction and mandate to save us from it.

What does that kind of world look like? Well, of course it means banning alcohol and tobacco immediately, along with cars, airplanes and motorcycles. Ships seem to sink relatively often (at least, more than 1,700 people are hospitalized in three years because of them), so let’s just ban those. In our quest for perfect safety, we could ban a lot of things that make us happy or make our lives better, even though they come with some risk.

Unless we’re going to start banning much more dangerous stuff than Buckyballs, let’s start discussing where we’re setting this balance between safety and quality of life.

A helpful place to start would be Brown’s list of banned items. If you check that out on the Office of Residential Life’s website, you can see that almost every item there is banned because it is an explicit or implicit fire hazard. Why is that? Because fire is an inherent danger not only to yourself, but to everybody else around you. It makes sense that the decision to have an open-flame grill in your dorm room is not really yours alone.

But curiously, Buckyballs and darts aren’t on the list. Perhaps because ResLife hasn’t heard of the CPSC’s decision and has yet to catch up, but maybe because they’re more discerning than the agency as well. My decision to ingest Buckyballs sucks for me, but it really has no negative effect on you. This is the principle of personal, rather than societal, responsibility for bad decisions.

In the case of children, the situation gets murkier. However, our laws already have a very stringent and entrenched notion of child negligence, which could be applied in every case where parents allow children access to products not intended for their use. This would offer judicial protection for children and allow adults to enjoy possibly dangerous products (as almost every product is on some level) and suffer the consequences of their own mistakes.

This article is not meant to advocate for the end of all regulation. It’s just meant to advocate for possible alternatives to a “nanny state” that aims for ultimate safety. For adults of sound mind, personal responsibility (in researching a product beforehand, knowing that smoking will hurt you, knowing that alcohol kills, knowing that driving a car carries some risk) is the core principle. Beyond that, child negligence law should be preferred over banning products unsafe for children. This would save us unnecessary bureaucracy, lower legal costs for small business, and allow adults to enjoy more products safely while addressing the actual issues our society faces directly.

In regulating the safety of products for adults, non-governmental organizations have arisen in many areas to pick up the government’s slack. UL is a famous example in the electronics field. In fact, Brown uses UL guidelines to regulate holiday decorations. Whole Foods extensively regulates its own products, as do many supermarket chains. Kosher regulations exist beyond the governmental fray. Organic, fair-trade, non-genetically modified organism labeling companies all offer their services with a guarantee to consumer and a valuable, trademarked label to producers. Consumer Reports and numerous online rating websites help provide information to shoppers before they buy.

In the end, the death of Buckyballs is a sad thing for a lot of reasons. Because an entrepreneur had a dream, provided a good to a lot of people, and had it crushed by an unforgiving bureaucracy. Because Buckyballs could’ve ended in so many other, better ways. But mainly because it comes under the presumption that the safety of all at any cost is okay. Let’s get the principles of personal responsibility and common sense back into our regulatory framework. It’ll make the world a better, more enjoyable, more vibrant place to live.


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