Twenty-five years ago, in U.S. News & World Report, I wrote this:
The mildly dangerous tradition of setting off firecrackers on the Fourth of July thrives across America, despite well-meaning efforts to stamp it out. This week, local news outlets will no doubt feature horrifying stories of children who have lost fingers and eyes in accidents with cherry bombs, roman candles, and the like. But these cautionary tales are no match for the powerful childhood memories of parents, particularly fathers.
Ask a wide cut of American males about their boyhood exploits with firecrackers, and they will enthusiastically spin tales of controlled mayhem. Blowing up anthills. Tossing M-80s into storm sewers. Engaging in wars of bottle rockets. In a manic regard for safety, the typical dad will deny his child any number of pleasures he knew as a kid, like riding a bike without a helmet or sitting in a car’s front seat. This caution evaporates around the Fourth, when millions of fathers bring home boxes of firecrackers and initiate their children into the pyrotechnic militia.
Firecrackers have a subversive appeal. Even the way they get purchased, in garish tents by the side of the highway on the exurban fringe, feels somehow illicit. Yet it is lawbreaking with popular support. In the states and municipalities where firecrackers are illegal, they are widely used anyway, with little interference from police. This spirit of communally sanctioned lawbreaking squares with the history of Independence Day festivities.
It was veterans of the Revolutionary War, covert fighters all, who began the tradition by firing their muskets during Fourth of July celebrations. Firing small arms remained a favorite form of revelry into the mid-19th century … [That] gave way to the less hazardous practice of shooting off firecrackers when, after the Civil War, cheap Chinese firecrackers made it to America. They were noisy but relatively harmless. But in the early 20th century, American innovators developed varieties that were almost as lethal as dynamite. The ensuing carnage (even modest burns could result in untreatable infections) led the press to agitate for the abolition of firecrackers. Localities started outlawing them in 1908; statewide bans followed during the Depression. By the early 1950s, 28 states forbade the sale and use of consumer fireworks and, by the mid-’70s, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission was considering a nationwide prohibition.
That effort met stiff resistance, however, from the fireworks industry and from Chinese-Americans, who insisted on the right to use fireworks in their cultural celebrations. A compromise was reached. Instead of banning firecrackers altogether, Washington would regulate them—heavily. The mightiest legal firecracker today can have no more than one-thirtieth as much flash powder as the now illegal cherry bomb.
These federal rules, plus better quality control by an industry fearful of litigation, have dramatically improved the safety of firecrackers.
The annual toll of firecracker-related injuries has hardly changed since 1990, yet annual sales of consumer fireworks have nearly doubled this decade. They have quadrupled since 1976, when Bicentennial celebrations repopularized pyrotechnics. As firecrackers have become safer, most states have dropped the bans against them. Thus did the federal government, so often portrayed recently as the enemy of freedom, help preserve an explosive pleasure that is itself a symbol of this country’s liberty.
In the quarter century since I wrote those words, consumer fireworks sales in the United States have risen every year, while annual firework-related accidents have stayed about the same—meaning that the rate of accidents has actually gone down. And the broader argument I tried to make, that federal regulations are not hindrances to personal freedom and economic prosperity but bulwarks of both, is one that the Washington Monthly has continued to advance in story after story.
Alas, our crusade has not made much headway, to put it mildly, and the consequences are now dire. As Phillip Longman explains in this issue’s cover story, a decades-long political attack on federal regulations by both parties, made worse by a related pullback in antitrust enforcement, has led to highly concentrated markets and, ultimately, to today’s inflation. “When shocks like the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine came along,” Longman writes, “the industrial system had no spare capacity and became riddled with choke points, setting off a prolonged frenzy of price gouging that doesn’t self-correct. Call it ‘choke-flation.’ ”
Meanwhile, Marcia Brown reports, recent decisions by the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority threaten to paralyze the ability of federal agencies to regulate much of anything. Yet rank-and-file liberals have barely even noticed. Fortunately, Brown notes, a bill by Washington Democratic Representative Pramila Jayapal that has a decent chance of passing in the House would go a long way toward neutralizing the Court’s assault on regulatory agencies. Though unlikely to make it through the Senate, the measure provides an opportunity for Democrats, and possibly some Republicans, to rethink the dangerous path we are on. Indeed, as Brian Kettenring writes, the whole market fundamentalist “neoliberal” political order is showing unmistakable signs of collapsing, even if no one knows what will take its place.
I strongly suspect, however, that the next political order will involve rediscovering the old American wisdom about setting sensible rules for the marketplace—the kind that allows this father to set off firecrackers with his kids on the Fourth of July.