Imagine a society in which an unelected, few people, qualified for power only by their mastery of esoteric terminology and incantations, are able to dictate our everyday lives in the most minute detail–growing rich in the process by siphoning off unearned billions from the nation’s economy. Does this sound like life in some dictatorship, like the reign of the theocratic mullahs in Iran?
In fact, it is the system that a cabal of trial lawyers is trying to impose here in America. Having gorged themselves on plump settlements from big tobacco, a group of liability lawyers gathered in Boston last weekend to plan a new set of lawsuits against fast-food companies, blaming them for an epidemic of American obesity. The lawyers are careful not to describe these lawsuits as direct controls on the actions and choices of individuals, but as attacks on such vague abstractions as “companies that make high-density, low-cost food.” But in attacking fast-food companies, they are taking away our freedom to decide what we eat for lunch. And if that seems like a small matter, reflect that a group of lawyers who can dictate such a ubiquitous detail of everyday life can dictate anything.
Indeed, fast-food lawsuits began as a joke, an example of obviously ridiculous legalistic meddling. Critics first imagined fast-food litigation as a “reductio ad absurdum”–a reduction to absurdity–of the lawsuits against tobacco companies. If lawsuits can be used to ban any product considered “unhealthy,” critics argued, then logically the same approach could be used to sue fast-food chains for selling greasy burgers and fried chicken.
Cartoon courtesy of Cox and Forkum
The problem with the “reductio ad absurdum” argument, one of my philosophy teachers once warned me, is that your opponent may simply embrace the logical end result of his ideas–no matter how absurd it is. And that’s exactly what is happening now.
The anti-fast-food suits are a logical extension of the premise behind the anti-tobacco suits: the denial of individual responsibility. The courts used to recognize the principle that manufacturers are not responsible for the misuse of their products–that if individuals choose to smoke too much, or eat too much, or shoot innocent people, then the manufacturers of cigarettes, fast food, and firearms cannot be held responsible.
But liability lawyers have argued that, despite decades of cancer warnings, smokers were helplessly manipulated by big tobacco companies into puffing 10 packs a day and giving themselves lung cancer. The same lawyers have applied this responsibility-free outlook to countless other suits. Shooting attacks, for example, are not an evil chosen by individual criminals; no, these lawyers argue, shootings are the fault of gun makers. And now they are going to tell us that no one knows that burgers and fries are fattening, that no one can help eating them, and that McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC should be made to pay for the results of their customers’ expanding waistlines.
Despite a few kooky claims about fat being “addictive”–as opposed to just being tasty–the fact that people are responsible for their own eating habits is so obvious it hardly needs arguing. As one fast-food customer told reporters, “If you can’t figure out that fast food’s bad for you, then you’re an idiot.” But that’s what people used to say about cigarettes, and it assumes that individuals are endowed with reasoning minds capable of making responsible choices. But that view of man as a responsible individual capable of running his own life has long since been abandoned by the courts–with ominous results.
If people are viewed as passive victims, pushed helplessly into destructive behavior by advertising and by supposed addictions, then it follows that the government needs to step in and save us from ourselves. And worse, such Big Brother controls are now being imposed, not even by congressional vote, but by the extortion of an unaccountable clique of lawyers. The cost of abandoning the principle of personal responsibility is a kind of decentralized totalitarianism–what legal scholar Walter Olson calls “the rule of lawyers”–in which the individual’s judgment about how to live is constantly being overruled by the latest lawsuit.
One representative in Congress has proposed the aptly titled Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act to shield fast-food firms from lawsuits. But the reform we need is much wider: a return to the concept of man as a rational, self-responsible individual entitled to make his own decisions–and take his own risks–without the paternalistic “protection” of liability lawyers.