Reductio ad absurdum

Posted: Nov 26, 2002 12:00 AM
One of the standard methods of column writers, such as myself, is the reductio ad absurdum -- taking policies, statements and proposals to their logical conclusion. For example, it is easy to show that the principle of taxation leads logically to confiscation and, hence, slavery. After all, if the government can take a third of one's earnings, as is presently the case, then what logical constraint is there to prevent it from taking 100 percent, at which point one is a slave, for all intents and purposes? Another reductio ad absurdum is to ask whether there is a point at which every single thing one can possibly do for a living entails a legal liability so extreme that everything one has may eventually be confiscated by the courts. Unfortunately, that is already happening. Increasingly, it appears that there is no limit to liability. Moreover, it is so capricious that there is virtually no one who may not suffer its consequences. In recent days, McDonalds has been sued by some New York teen-agers for contributing to their obesity. According to their court filing (as posted at, one of the plaintiffs is 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighs 380 pounds. For this he blames solely McDonalds, on the grounds that he has been going to its restaurants three or four times a week for the past 7 years. No other evidence is presented. It would be too easy to laugh off such a ridiculously thin lawsuit. But the cases against the tobacco companies were no less insubstantial, yet billions of dollars were awarded to the lawyers who brought suits against them. The alleged victims got almost nothing. So, too, with the alleged victims of asbestos. I don't deny that millions of people have suffered the consequences of obesity, smoking and asbestos. But the question of responsibility has been glossed over much too easily. In the cases of tobacco and obesity, the responsibility of the supposed victims has been completely ignored, while in the case of asbestos its benefits have been totally overlooked. Furthermore, the connection between liability and the production or sale of the damaging product has been expanded to such an extent that even the most tenuous connection is sufficient to bring forth vast monetary damages. People perfectly well aware of the dangers of smoking have been awarded billions upon billions of dollars from tobacco companies. Of course, if they were actually to obtain such awards, all those similarly injured would get nothing, because there would be nothing left to give them. The well would be empty. What keeps this process going is not the pain and suffering of the alleged victims, but the greed of their lawyers. According to the Rand Corp., less than half of all asbestos awards have gone to victims, and 65 percent of that has gone to those with no visible symptoms of asbestos damage. The result has been that very little is left for those actually suffering from asbestos-related illnesses. In any case, neither the companies involved nor anyone else had a clue that asbestos contact was harmful at the time it occurred. Everyone thought it was safe. Moreover, no effort whatsoever has been made to gauge the benefits to society from the proven fire protection provided by asbestos. Those living today because they were protected pay nothing, while the companies that provided the protection are bankrupted. And those who sued first got huge settlements, while those who came later are mostly still waiting to see any money. It would be a relatively easy matter to devise legislation that would compensate those truly suffering from asbestos-related problems in a way that recognizes both the costs and benefits of its use. But that would deny the trial lawyers an opportunity to enrich themselves off the pain and suffering of others. Hence, there is no fix -- as Democrats, who receive 70 percent of lawyers' largess (according to, block any effort to do so. Like good entrepreneurs, the greedy lawyers -- apologies for the redundancy -- are looking for virgin territory. Now they are suing McDonalds for making its customers fat. On Nov. 20, some of the stupider and greedier of their ilk filed a suit in New York claiming damages on behalf of Julian Tawfik (5 feet, 9 inches, 380 pounds), Jazlyn Bradley (5 feet, 6 inches, 270 pounds) and others. Apparently, McDonalds is solely and exclusively responsible for their condition. Neither they nor their parents bear any blame whatsoever. It's too easy to laugh at such greed and extravagance. But given the nature of our court system today, one cannot assume that the plaintiffs may not win billions of dollars from some idiotic jury -- most going to the lawyers. At some point, personal responsibility must rule, lest our entire economic system collapse from the weight of an out-of-control legal system.