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The Great American Exchange: Liberty for “Safety” and the Middlemen Who Profit

Even buying contact lenses in this country is to run a gauntlet of laws, regulations, and protocol.

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My wife tried to buy some new contact lenses when she returned to the USA last summer for a visit. She walked into an eyewear store, produced her prescription, and tried to order a few pairs. Simple.

“We’re sorry, but this prescription isn’t from this year. We can’t accept it.”

She wanted to get some more pairs of the exact same contacts she was lugging around in her head, but that was against the law. By governmental decree, backed up by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, Americans cannot decide when and how to refill their eyewear prescriptions. Instead, my wife was told that she would need to make an appointment with an eye doctor, get a new exam, a new prescription, and then return. She’s 29 years old and had the same prescription for at least the last 15 years, it wasn’t going to change — even with a new exam. But logic and self-determination doesn’t play into a system that funds itself via the nannying of its citizens.

My wife doesn’t have medical insurance in the USA, and there was no way that she was going to waste the money to meet the parameters of such a commercial concession formality. Instead, she would just leave the country and go to where she can buy contact lenses without being controlled by government agencies, corporate lobbyists, and doctors: the rest of the world.

So we went to a mall in Xiamen, China and walked into a glasses store. We picked out some Bausch and Lomb contacts. Without producing a prescription, proof of a medical inspection, a doctor’s decree, or a note from her mother, the guy behind the counter filed her order. There were no questions: Why would someone buy contacts who didn’t need them? Why would someone want contacts they can’t see out of? If someone did buy the wrong prescription or had some other kind of masochistic intentions for their contact lenses, well, that’s their problem.

The guy behind the counter then took my wife’s glasses and ran them through a machine to get a preliminary take on her prescription, then led her into an examination room that was set up in the back of the shop. She went in and met with an optometrist, peered through some machines, gazed through some goggles, pointed out the directions of some Es and Ms, and looked through a gap between her fingers and thumbs. An in-store eye exam is a formality when buying eyewear in China — a completely free formality. After going through the tests, her prescription was jotted down. It was the same as always. She then walked up to a counter, paid, and came out with 12 new sets of contacts. Total time elapsed: 20 minutes.

This is the global norm.

You grow up in the USA and you take the micromanaging, the nannying, all the rules and regulations as simply being the way things are, as a normal part of life. It’s not until you leave the country that you realize that it’s not like this everywhere. The USA is a very abnormal country when it comes to people having the ability to make decisions which can potentially impact their well being. Of course, this is not because the people there have a government that really cares about them. It’s just a device to make people pay to get through as many steps of the commercial system as possible — a way of cutting in middlemen, service providers, and caregivers who couldn’t be more happy to make up for our legislatively imposed ineptitude. You can’t just walk into an eyewear shop and get what you want. That is too simple. You must include doctors, secretaries, insurance agents . . . into the deal.

If what was lost was merely money then my response would simply be a jaded shrug. But it’s not. When a population is no longer permitted to make decisions for themselves which impact nobody other than themselves they have been stripped of some of their most basic liberties. A government that protects its citizens is ideal, a government that protects its citizens from themselves is displaying totalitarian tendencies.

We call our elected officials lawmakers. Making laws is what they do for a living. We applaud this profession, we support it, we cheer when new regulations are put on the books which appear to keep people safe. As the years go on the laws stack up, and any lawmaker who doesn’t add to the pile is a deadbeat. Then we wake up and realize that in the name of safety we’ve watched the basic freedom of being able to make decisions for ourselves disintegrate into an endless gauntlet of regulations. When you no longer have the liberty to even do something as petty as select your own contact lenses, something has gone awry.

This is difficult to notice from inside the USA. This all seems normal. But once you live outside this country for an extended amount of time the degree to which people are regulated and controlled there becomes startling. What do you mean you can’t go to the pharmacy and buy antibiotics? What do you mean you can’t just walk into a clinic and see a doctor? What do you mean the government is forcing people to pay corporations for health insurance? What do you mean you can’t drink a beer in a park? What do you mean you can’t hang out in the streets? What do you mean you can’t choose your own eyewear? The right to be stupid is a freedom that most of the world still enjoys.


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Filed under: Medical Care, USA

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3717 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

2 comments… add one

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  • D.B. Cooper July 3, 2015, 10:31 pm

    I buy my contacts from a Canadian webstore in order to solve the same problem.

    They gladly ship to the USA.

    My eye prescription hasn’t changed in 20 years. I get exams every 5 years instead of every year.

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  • Lawrence September 9, 2015, 12:32 pm

    What do you mean with all this clean air and water?

    Link Reply