WASHINGTON, D.C. -- This Thanksgiving, as Americans polish off turkey leftovers and brace themselves for the seasonal ritual of Christmas jingles, holiday parties and eggnog, there is plenty for which to be grateful.
Osama bin Laden, whether dead or alive, is on the run, and his accomplices are systematically being rounded up. President Bush's judicial nominees, no longer obstructed by Sens. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Pat Leahy, D-Vt., will soon receive fair and speedy confirmations. Columnists, pundits and late-night comedians can be thankful that Al Gore has emerged from hibernation and is as foolish as ever. And while we can also be thankful that the Mayflower Compact's noble vision for self-government endures 382 years later, we must be concerned about its erosion.
Before landing at Plymouth, the Pilgrims gathered on the Mayflower deck "in the Presence of God and one another" and covenanted "together into a civil Body Politick," providing order and security to the new colony. From such modest origins, a "commonwealth" and an entire nation would spring forth, breaking with the factions and foibles of the Old World and committed to self-government.
Unlike modern political theorists who insist that the United States is based on radical egalitarianism (which leaves them sputtering to explain such enduring institutions as the Electoral College and the U.S. Senate), our forefathers did not understand self-government to refer primarily to political leadership. Rather, early Americans understood "self-government" as individuals exercising self-control and responsibility in the conduct of their affairs. Only with the post-Civil War development of the centralized Leviathan state did this older definition of "self-government" begin to yield to Al Gore's "no controlling legal authority."
As the Pilgrims' descendants who still frequent town meetings in many New England communities know, self-government is hard but rewarding. Citizens must take responsibility for themselves and their communities, and not depend on federal agencies or government subsidies. It's the pioneering spirit of the Pilgrims in 1620, the defiant Minutemen in Lexington and Concord in 1775, and the doomed passenger-heroes on United Flight 93 over the fields of western Pennsylvania. This vision of American self-government is immortalized in Todd Beamer's rallying cry, "Let's roll!"
Liberals and their trial lawyer allies, however, offer a version of self-government that is best summarized as, "Let's sue!" The Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA) is blazing new legal terrain by holding corporations responsible for individuals who misuse or abuse their products. The anti-tobacco litigation was just a prelude to class-action lawsuits against gun manufacturers, automakers, home-builders and even fast food restaurants.
Think I'm kidding? A U.S. district court in New York is currently reviewing a lawsuit filed by two Bronx teen-age girls who blame McDonald's for their obesity and health problems. Their attorney vows he'll expand the case to a class action lawsuit by overweight youngsters if the district judge allows the case to proceed. McDonald's lawyers have cited recent studies and venerable quotes by Benjamin Franklin and Henry David Thoreau that link good health and healthy eating. But such tactics so far are no match for the two girls, one of whom is a 5 foot, 6 inch 19-year-old who weighs 270 pounds and whose father astonishingly admitted in an affidavit filed with the court, "I always believed McDonald's was healthy for my children."
In October, a California jury ordered Philip Morris to pay $28 billion (yes, billion) to Betty Bullock, a 64-year-old woman who blames her smoking habit and lung cancer on cigarette manufacturers. Although Bullock admitted that doctors warned her about smoking risks decades ago, as did her own daughter more recently, the jury held Philip Morris responsible. If the jury award withstands review, Bullock's trial lawyer may collect upward of one-third of the $28 billion award, which suggests that tobacco companies aren't the only ones profiting from smokers.
San Francisco Deputy District Attorney Nathan Ballard is targeting a different industry as Public Enemy No. 1. He's spearheading San Francisco's lawsuit against gun manufacturers, an effort that is spreading across America. "They are practically the only industry that can harm people and go largely unregulated," Ballard says about gun makers. But Ballard has yet to demonstrate that guns are to blame for violence, any more than cars are responsible for drunk driving or Harvard is responsible for Al Gore.
Those who track the avant garde of frivolous personal injury litigation point to John Banzhaf as the mastermind behind the legal assault on lawful products. A longtime liberal activist and George Washington University professor who uses the judicial system to achieve what the legislative process does not yield, Banzhaf, decades ago, popularized the idea of suing tobacco companies. Fast food is his newest target. Already, he has assisted with a class-action suit filed by indignant Hindus in Seattle who allege that McDonald's fails to disclose that its fries are made with beef fat.
The Anglo-American legal system, with its presumption of innocence and jury system, is one of the West's singular achievements. But it also demands a high level of civic responsibility, because it's meant as a last recourse for the problems that neighbors cannot resolve among themselves. In searching to blame corporations for what actually are self-inflicted problems, trial lawyers and their clients undermine the ideal of self-government that we rightly applaud the Pilgrims' Mayflower Compact for inaugurating in the New World. Ronald McDonald is not the new "Camel Joe." He's just a straw man for liberal activists unwilling to take responsibility for themselves.