In 2001, the Bush administration signed the United Nations Environment Program’s Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, known as the POPs treaty. The treaty bans 12 chemicals—DDT (dichloro-diphenyltrichloroethane), aldrin, dieldrin, endrin, chlordane, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex, toxaphene, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, and furans—most of which are already banned in the United States. Several bills in Congress have focused on implementing the treaty, which members wanted to to pass before the Senate ratification. The legislation promised to make a seriously flawed treaty even worse by allowing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban and regulate additional substances unilaterally after unelected bureaucrats add chemicals to the treaty list. Legislation has stalled, but is likely to reemerge in a future congress.
The assumption behind the POPs treaty is that regulators—and, in this case, international negotiators—are well positioned to decide which products are valuable and which are too dangerous for public use. Although eliminating dangerous chemicals might sound reasonable, such decisions rarely are cut and dry—they often carry serious tradeoffs.
History shows that regulators are inferior to the marketplace in managing such risks. Market selection of products is driven by such concerns as price, utility, and quality. Those parties affected— manufacturers, buyers, sellers, and downstream consumers—make decisions at the appropriate points in the process where they have access to information about the implications of their decisions. Markets manage risk in this fashion by allowing individuals to decide what level of risk is worth taking to gain the benefits of many products and activities. Although people do not always make perfect decisions, individuals in the marketplace are better positioned to make such decisions than are regulators.