No Spin Zone
Stossel's Column: Strangling Life
By: John StosselJuly 16, 2013

There are now 175,000 pages' worth of federal laws. Local governments add more.

I'm not so cynical that I think politicians pass laws just to control us. Someone always thinks: "This law is needed. This will protect people."

But the cumulative effect of so many rules is to strangle life.

Yet lawyers like George Washington Law professor John Banzhaf want more rules.

Banzhaf requires his law students to sue people, just for practice.

"And we keep winning!" he bragged to me.

They do. But his legal "victories" hardly benefit the public.

He and his students have sued Washington, D.C., hairdressers and dry cleaners for "discrimination" because they charge women more.

Of course, they charge women more for a reason. Women's haircuts take longer. "Women get pampered," said hairdresser Carolyn Carter. "Men just get a haircut." Women's clothing is more varied and doesn't always fit dry-cleaning machines. The market sorts out these differences through differing prices.

But intrusive Washington, D.C., politicians write laws that say, "Discrimination ... cannot be justified by ... comparative characteristics of one group as opposed to another."

So the poor defendants have to spend thousands on legal fees, while law students get their "practice." A Korean dry cleaners association "went through three or four high-powered law firms" defending itself, Banzhaf says with pride.

Banzhaf's lawsuits even got "ladies' nights" banned at Washington, D.C., bars. Women liked "ladies' night." Men liked it because it brought more women into bars. Bars liked it; that's why they did it. But the practice violates the lawyers' concept of "equality."

As if his lawsuits weren't obnoxious enough, the real irony is that the cost of the suits is passed on to future customers. Businesses charge more to cover the cost of suits and complying with regulations.

Lawyers like Banzhaf aren't elected, but their actions still govern our choices.

Tibor Machan, professor of business ethics at Chapman University, told me we should object to Banzhaf on principle. "Is it right to manipulate people all the time, to treat them like they're little children? The next step from the nanny state is the petty tyrannical state. And a dictatorial state."

Machan echoes writer C.S. Lewis' point that well-meaning tyrants are even more dangerous than purely selfish ones. Lewis wrote, "Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end."

The conceit of politicians and lawyers is that they think they can manage life through rules. So they keep adding more.

They don't see that these rules gradually wreck life.

Critics of lawsuit abuse focus on the cost of litigation, but the bigger harm is that fear of lawsuits itself deprives us of good things.

-- Drug companies invented a vaccine against Lyme disease, but they won't sell it, because they're scared of lawyers.
-- Fearful medical device makers often stick to old technologies because trying something new, even if it's better, risks a suit.
-- Monsanto developed a substitute for asbestos, a fire-resistant insulation that might save thousands of lives, but decided not to sell it because the company feared it might be sued.

We don't even know how many wonderful life-enhancing products we might have today if innovators didn't live in a climate of fear.

I don't suggest that we should be at the mercy of rip-off artists. Some lawsuits are useful -- if businesses commit theft or fraud, they should be sued. But American law encourages suits. In other countries, if you sue and lose, you and your lawyer must pay the court bills of the people you dragged into court.

When I started consumer reporting, I believed that only legal rules could protect us. But it's not true. The rules just give us a false sense of security.

The free market does a better job protecting consumers. Competition protects us.

Repeal most of the laws. Let the market work its magic.

 

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