A predictable byproduct of this theory is brazen cynicism, encouraged by what Howard calls trial lawyers "congregating at the intersection of human tragedy and human greed." So:
A volunteer for a Catholic charity in Milwaukee ran a red light and seriously injured another person. Because the volunteer did not have deep pockets, the injured person sued the archdiocese -- successfully, for $17 million.
The thread connecting such lunacies is a fear permeating American life. It is, alas, a sensible fear arising from America's increasingly perverse legal culture that is the subject of what surely will be 2009's most needed book on public affairs -- Howard's "Life Without Lawyers: Liberating Americans from Too Much Law."
A nation in which the proportion of lawyers in the work force almost doubled between 1970 and 2000 has become ludicrously dense with laws. Now legal self-consciousness is stifling the exercise of judgment. Today's entitlement culture inculcates the idea that everyone is entitled to a life without danger, disappointment or aggravation. Any disagreement or annoyance can be aggressively "framed in the language of legal deprivation."
Law is essential to, but can stifle, freedom. Today, Howard writes, "Americans increasingly go through the day looking over their shoulders instead of where they want to go." The land of the free and the home of the brave has become "a legal minefield" through which we timidly tiptoe lest we trigger a legal claim. What should be routine daily choices and interactions are fraught with legal risk.
Time was, rights were defensive. They were to prevent government from doing things to you. Today, rights increasingly are offensive weapons wielded to inflict demands on other people, using state power for private aggrandizement. The multiplication of rights, each lacking limiting principles, multiplies nonnegotiable conflicts conducted with the inherent extremism of rights rhetoric, on the assumption, Howard says, "that society will somehow achieve equilibrium if it placates whomever is complaining."
But in such a society, dazed by what Howard calls "rule stupor" and victimized by litigious "victims," the incentives are for intensified complaining. Read Howard's book, and weep for the death of common sense.