Criminalizing Innovation

By Fred Foldvary

The U.S. government has attacked an entrepreneur and his new product, as another episode of the federal government’s war on enterprise. In this case, the entrepreneur CEO is Craig Zucker, the company was Maxfield & Oberton, and the product was Buckyballs.

Buckyballs were small magnetic spheres made of neodymium, a rare-earth element that is a powerful magnet. As they stick together, the balls can be assembled into shapes such as pyramids. They were named “Buckyballs” after Buckminster Fuller, an American architect, inventor of the geodesic dome, and futurist visionary. His friends called him “Bucky,” and the neodymium spheres were somewhat like Bucky’s domes.

The company imported the balls from China and started selling them in 2009. They became a popular office toy. But the Buckyballs were banned in July 2012 by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is now seeking to prosecute Zucker for having sold the balls.

In 2012 the Commission also sent letter to retailers warning of the risks to consumers of using Buckyballs and asking them to stop selling them. That was effective in stopping the sales. The Commission stated that the balls were a hazard for young children who swallowed them.

The company had developed the Buckyballs in collaboration with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and after the action by the Commission, the firm provided it with a corrective-action plan. Buckyballs were sold with a warning against access by children, and they were not sold in toy stores. But the Commission pursued a lawsuit against the firm even before examining the corrective plan. As pointed out by the Wall Street Journal article (cited below) on that case, there are many potentially dangerous products being sold, such as cleaning chemicals, knives, and balloons. Buckyballs were intended and marketed for adults, and, according to the WSJ article, no deaths have been associated with the Buckyballs.

The Commission declared, as a justification for the ban, that Buckyballs have “low utility” and are unnecessary, despite purchases by 2.5 million adults who spent $30 each. The principle established by the Commission is that government determines which products are desirable, not consumers. Any product could be banned by the standards of the Commission.

The company then engaged in a publicity campaign regarding the actions by the Commission. In the end, the government was too powerful to resist, and the company was terminated in December 2012. However, in February 2013, the Commission charged Zucker as being personally liable for the costs of a recall costing $57 million if the Buckyballs are judged to be defective.

The federal government has by this action abolished limited personal liability under U.S. law for corporations as well as partnerships. From now on, the executives of a firm will be vulnerable for the liabilities of the firms. Any entrepreneur will now risk losing all that he owns if he engages in the production or distribution of any product. The effect of this government action is to strangle American entrepreneurship.

In the case of United States v. Park in 1975, the Supreme Court ruled that the CEO of a food company was criminally liable for a rodent infestation. This ruling was based on the federal Food and Drug Act. But another case, Meyer v. Holley in 2003 ruled that ordinary liability applies unless there is a clear Congressional intent to hold corporate officers personally liable. The relevant law in the Buckyballs case is Section 15 of the Consumer Product Safety Act, which regulates corporate persons, not individual persons.

The WSJ article says that since Zucker did not commit any criminal violation, the Commission’s continuing prosecution of Zucker “raises the question of retaliation for his public campaign against the commission.” If the Commission achieves its goal, personal-injury lawyers will take advantage of personal liability to go after CEOs and other company personae.

This action by Congress, the Courts, and the Commission has to be seen in the perspective of a broad war by government on private enterprise and consumer choice, using taxes, restrictions, mandates, and prosecutions, ultimately resulting in an economy that is nominally private but substantially controlled by governmental chiefs. The name for that system is “fascism.”

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Reference: Sohrab Ahmari, “What Happens When a Man Takes on the Feds,” Wall Street Journal, August 31-September 1, 2013, p. A11.

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