The Consumer Product Safety Commission's announcement of a recall of baby sling carriers is a perfect example of some of the issues that come up in thinking about regulation. Is this a success of regulation, because the product was recalled before more deaths resulted? Or is it a failure of regulation, because three children reportedly died in the slings in 2009: "a 7-week-old infant in Philadelphia, Pa.; a 6-day-old infant in Salem, Ore.; and a 3-month-old infant in Cincinnati, Ohio."
I speak from some experience because I owned one of these slings and used it to carry around a newborn in 2007; I think I then gave it away to someone else. The child, who survived the experience, seemed to enjoy being in it, and it was a sure-fire way to get her to sleep.
Do we need a government agency to prevent companies from making and selling harmful products? On the face of it, you'd think a company's desire to make a profit would be incentive enough on its own for it to make sure that its products are safe. Infantino, the sling maker, now will probably face lawsuits, and its reputation is damaged. It's not 100% clear that the three deaths reported were caused by the slings -- the children might have died anyway. Three deaths out of 1 million slings, some of which may have been used for more than one child, seems like pretty long odds of death, even if the slings were the cause of the death.
Even in industries where there are elaborate pre-approval processes before products can be marketed to the public, like the pharmaceutical industry, the government officials in charge of making sure that the approved products are safe sometimes make mistakes, and drugs that were approved are later found to have excessive risks. So even if we wanted to have a government agency make sure that every thing sold is safe, it's not clear that such an achievement would be possible.
An Associated Press dispatch carried by the Wall Street Journal includes what might be interpreted as an implicit plea for the government to take action: "There are no federal safety rules for baby slings."