Phillip K. Howard, in an excellent essay in the Wall Street Journal, describes the impact of limitless litigation and regulation on American life and the American character.
Here we stand, facing the worst economy since the Great Depression, and Americans no longer feel free to do anything about it. We have lost the idea, at every level of social life, that people can grab hold of a problem and fix it. Defensiveness has swept across the country like a cold wave. We have become a culture of rule followers, trained to frame every solution in terms of existing law or possible legal risk. The person of responsibility is replaced by the person of caution. When in doubt, don’t.
All this law, we’re told, is just the price of making sure society is in working order. But society is not working. Disorder disrupts learning all day long in many public schools — the result in part, studies by NYU Professor Richard Arum found, of the rise of student rights. Health care is like a nervous breakdown in slow motion. Costs are out of control, yet the incentive for doctors is to order whatever tests the insurance will pay for. Taking risks is no longer the badge of courage, but reason enough to get sued. There’s an epidemic of child obesity, but kids aren’t allowed to take the normal risks of childhood. Broward County, Fla., has even banned running at recess.
The flaw, and the cure, lie in our conception of freedom. We think of freedom as political freedom. We’re certainly free to live and work where we want, and to pull the lever in the ballot box. But freedom should also include the power of personal conviction and the authority to use your common sense. Analyzing the American character, Alexis de Tocqueville, considered “freedom less necessary in great things than in little ones. . . . Subjection in minor affairs does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to sacrifice their own will. Thus their spirit is gradually broken and their character enervated.”
Read the whole thing.