Demonizing for Dollars

by | Mar 17, 2001 | POLITICS

THE ONCE-POPULAR GAME SHOW “Dialing for Dollars” has its present-day counterpart in courts of law — Demonizing for dollars. The most spectacular bonanza to come out of this process has been the hundreds of billions of dollars shared by lawyers and others, as a result of lawsuits against tobacco companies by smokers, former smokers, heirs […]

THE ONCE-POPULAR GAME SHOW “Dialing for Dollars” has its present-day counterpart in courts of law — Demonizing for dollars.

The most spectacular bonanza to come out of this process has been the hundreds of billions of dollars shared by lawyers and others, as a result of lawsuits against tobacco companies by smokers, former smokers, heirs of dead smokers, local governments and anybody else who could come up with a plausible reason to get his hands in the till.

People who had been warned incessantly for years, on every pack of cigarettes, that smoking was dangerous nevertheless were able to blame their ills and expenses on tobacco companies. But, before there could be a big payoff, there had to be a big demonizing campaign. We were told again and again that tobacco companies were bad. In some ways they were in fact bad. Joe Camel was not their finest hour. However, in some ways all of us are bad, at least sometimes. But a government based on laws is not supposed to punish people just because they are bad — or because their badness happens to be in the public spotlight at the moment. They have to have violated some specific law. They cannot simply be pronounced to be tainted. That was outlawed by the Constitution when it forbad “bills of attainder.”

In today’s free-wheeling world, however, what is the Constitution when we have a crusade going — especially if we are demonizing for dollars? Once we taint them as big-time bad people, then we can get down to the serious business of digging into their cash.

Now that the financial raid on the tobacco companies has succeeded on a grand scale, the next logical targets are the manufacturers of firearms. Lawyers, politicians and assorted others are lining up at the cash window to collect another big payoff.

We live in a world where somebody has to be blamed for everything. Often it is not the person who actually created the damage but instead the nearest source of big bucks. Those crusaders who are most ferocious against firearms manufacturers and law-abiding gun owners are often the softest on the violent criminals who actually shoot people.

A little psychological counseling, some community service and other “alternatives to incarceration” and it is OK to put the hoodlums back on the street. Just don’t let their potential victims arm themselves.

If we were being consistent, we should allow victims to sue governments that fail to protect them and refuse to let them protect themselves. Since guns save many lives as well as cost other lives, why not sue gun-control advocates?

Would the world be a better place if there were no firearms? Of course. It would be better if there were no weapons at all. But this is the kind of philosophical question to be discussed around a seminar table. In the real world, there are a couple of hundred million guns out there and they are not going to vanish because of any law or any lawsuit.

A blanket prohibition against bills of attainder was put into the Constitution for a reason. Nothing is easier than to formalize lynch law against individuals or groups who have been demonized. And nothing is more dangerous.

Laws become a mockery when this happens. Today it may be tobacco companies or firearms manufacturers, but no one can predict who it will be tomorrow. Even totalitarianism did not become totalitarianism in one big step. The totalitarians started out demonizing their victims and then playing fast and loose with the laws to crack down on them. That is what is being done now by those who are demonizing for dollars.

The Communists demonized the capitalists, the Nazis demonized the Jews [for being Capitalists–Ed] and other opportunists have demonized whoever was handy. What they all have in common is brushing aside the principles of a rule of law by unleashing passions that overwhelm those principles.

Those who are demonizing for dollars have much more limited aims, if billions of dollars worth of extortion can be called limited.

But, once you have turned the rule of law into just some stuffy old technicalities to be winked at and finessed, you have taken a fatal step for the whole society, regardless of who the particular target happens to be at the moment.

Thomas Sowell has published a large volume of writing. His dozen books, as well as numerous articles and essays, cover a wide range of topics, from classic economic theory to judicial activism, from civil rights to choosing the right college. Please contact your local newspaper editor if you want to read the THOMAS SOWELL column in your hometown paper.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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