by Barry Edelson

Bad Things Happen

ash cloud

Who Do We Sue?


The juxtaposition of two headlines today makes an interesting study in the human compulsion to seek justice even where it is irrelevant or impossible: Goldman Sachs is sued for securities fraud, while a volcano in Iceland disrupts air travel across Europe.

If you think people are more inclined to resign themselves to a natural disaster than to an allegation of malfeasance, try to imagine yourself working behind an airline check-in counter in London or Amsterdam or Frankfurt this weekend. Anyone in customer relations in any industry knows that a certain percentage of adult humans can be counted on to behave badly in the best of circumstances, and that even many ordinarily level-headed and sweet-tempered souls will turn ornery under duress. When things go wrong, people instinctively look for someone they can hold responsible. It doesn't matter if the misfortune of the moment was caused by a greedy banker or a lifeless mountain. There must be someone to sue.

Admittedly, there are cultural and generational variations to this phenomenon. Earlier generations of American were more inclined than we are to accept that bad things sometimes happen, and were far less likely to make a federal case (literally) out of a mistake or error in judgment. Finding someone to blame has become a national disease, as evidenced by our clogged civil courts, but it is not one that afflicts all countries to the same degree. The long-suffering citizens of Haiti, who have never had the opportunity to grow accustomed to meaningful support from their government, appeared more resigned to their fate following January's earthquake than the residents of New Orleans were in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

But, you will argue, what about the miserable condition of the levees? What about the deterioration of the wetlands of the Mississippi Delta? Wasn't the flooding greatly exacerbated by the government's negligence and indifference? All true, perhaps, but not a situation unique to the United States. Someone also put up all those buildings that collapsed in Port-au-Prince. So why aren't the people there demanding justice, accountability, restitution? Regrettably, these concepts are little known in a country which does not have the luxury to distinguish much between natural and man-made disasters.

One can suppose, then, that the degree to which a society is disposed to hold individuals responsible when things go wrong is in proportion to the level of expectation the people have for those in positions of authority. Some parents whose children were crushed to death by poorly built schools during the Szechuan earthquake in 2008 were persecuted by their government for speaking out. That anyone said anything, in itself, is a remarkable development. In Mao's day, it would have been inconceivable that any Chinese subject would have dared do anything but bear his grief in silence, so the mere fact that some now feel bold enough to demand answers is definitely a sign that expectations have changed. The government has made it its business, over the last 20 years, to provide material prosperity. Observers in the West have long argued that it was only a matter of time before higher standards of living led to demands for higher levels of political participation. There has been precious little expansion of political rights, but if this episode is at all exemplary, an expectation of justice and accountability is strong and growing.

Like many other countries undergoing rapid economic transformation, China's first-world ambitions are hampered by third-world standards, medieval bureaucracy and a modern police state. Americans who are fond of thinking that all government spending is an affront to liberty might stop for a moment and consider what it is like to live in a country where the government makes no effort, not even an incompetent one, to protect its citizens from harm. It has been observed that earthquakes of the same magnitude as the one in the Bay Area in 1989, which killed fewer than 100 people and left several thousand homeless, have killed tens of thousands and left hundreds of thousands homeless from Iran to Latin America. Even in civilized Japan, the 1995 Kobe earthquake leveled 200,000 buildings. That's equal to one out of every five buildings in the five boroughs of New York City. To one degree or another, these calamities are the result of pure market capitalism: when contractors are restricted in the construction of buildings only by the price that the local market can bear, then the result is that most of them will fall down in an earthquake. This is not a theoretical economics exercise, but the inarguable consequence of shoddy building practices the world over. Would you rather live in a country that makes a ham-fisted attempt to enforce its building codes, or one that treats its citizens as so many interchangeable parts, and consequently has few if any codes to begin with?

It is deeply ironic that the more the government does to provide services, regulate industry and guarantee the public health, the less the population trusts the government to carry out any of the functions that the public demands of it. This is also not unique to the U.S., but is seemingly more pronounced here, at least among the developed nations. The more hopeless society feels about finding solutions to its problems, the more it turns to the hated government to solve them, and the more scorn is heaped on it when it fails. Does it make any sense to demand more and more from an institution for which there is less and less trust? This attitude makes even less sense when we turn the question around: How can any institution earn the public’s trust when society's expectations for it are so unrealistic? The resulting dynamic is not the expression of a rational, governing philosophy, but the manifestation of our contemporary response to misfortune: blame is easy, responsibility is hard.

So, if you are sitting in a hotel somewhere in Europe right now, unable to get a flight home, running up a big bar tab and fuming at the incompetence of the authorities, ask yourself whether you would have preferred to leave the decision to shut down the airports to the cash-strapped airlines? If not government, who will step in when something really, really bad happens? Left to our own devices, you and I wouldn't stand a chance against volcanic ash, earthquakes, tsunamis — or Goldman Sachs. The world is a dangerous place and always will be, and no one is to blame for that. But to paraphrase one of our former secretaries of state, if you're experiencing a catastrophe and want to get in touch with the free market, whom do you call? When you dial 911, it isn't the stock exchange on the other end of the line.

April 17, 2010

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