Setting social policy via the lawsuit

Last week when I wrote about a lawsuit against a casino by a man who was addicted to gambling, I noted that some people just can't help but sue other people.

It didn't take long to find the guy who is apparently America's main source for such lawsuits: John Banzhaf.

He has filed legal complaints against tobacco companies, the National Park Service, Hertz, dry-cleaners, male-only clubs and more.

His next target: fast-food restaurants. The reason: They make people fat.

Now, John Banzhaf is an attorney. It's his job to file lawsuits, I guess.

But for him it's more than a job. He wants to change society, one lawsuit at a time. His motto: "Sue the bastards."

Actually, he isn't the lawyer who has sued fast-food residents on behalf of fat clients. That guy's name is Samuel Hirsch. Banzhaf is only advising on the cases.

They're two of the lieutenants in the War on Obesity.

Here's what the lawsuits are about, according to the Washington Post.

The plaintiffs "are all between ages 13 to 19, all overweight. One, a 15-year-old boy, has diabetes and weighs 400 pounds.

"Some are from poor families with little parental supervision and have eaten the majority of their weekly dinners at McDonald's. The restaurant became a home away from home.

"Hirsch alleges that McDonald's failure to provide more prominent and understandable nutrition information amounts to deceptive practice. He says its marketing implies that its food is healthy and that if children eat it, they will grow big and strong. But if McDonald's food is consumed as intended -- which is not in moderation, he says -- it amounts to a true health threat to youngsters," the Post reported.

We can't say we weren't warned. When lawyers began winning cases against tobacco companies, I knew that french fries would be next.

I would argue the damage done to American society by such lawsuits, when they succeed, is far greater than the damage done by Big Macs.

"This portrays Americans as the most pathetic, pitiable people in the world, that we are incapable of limiting what we eat," says Donald Garner, a Southern Illinois University law professor who is also an anti-tobacco crusader.

You know all about the responsibility issue. We've been over that. When you can always find somebody else to blame for the choices you make, then social morality crumbles.

But there's another, measurable cost to that kind of attitude. Because lawyers like Banzhaf are only considering one side of the equation.

They go after McDonald's or Burger King because they're massive corporations with deep pockets. Nevertheless, that money belongs to somebody -- in most cases, to investors who have put their own dollars into the company. Retirement funds, insurance corporations, individuals. Winning millions of dollars in a lawsuit doesn't mean the money comes out of thin air; somebody has to pay.

More to the point, though, is what happens next. What do social-reform attorneys like Banzhaf and Hirsch really want? They want a law that says McDonald's has to provide more nutritional food, or do a better job of making sure teenagers understand fat-and-cholesterol content, or maybe they want to force McDonald's customers to spend 10 minutes on an exercise bike for every Big Mac they eat.

In other words, they want more regulations. And to have more regulations and somebody to enforce them means we have to have more government. Because if we're incapable of taking care of ourselves, then somebody's going to have to do it for us.

So, can we measure how much it might cost us for a requirement, say, that fast-food companies must print a warning label "Cholesterol can kill you" on the side of every carton of fries? (Because those costs obviously are passed on to the customer. Look at the price of a pack of cigarettes.)

Susan Dudley, who writes for the Cato Institute's magazine, Regulation, does have some measurements.

She reports that the federal government alone last year printed 64,431 pages of rules and announcements. The cost of running regulatory agencies was $25 billion.

That's a pretty big number. But it's dwarfed by the amount the public spends to comply with all those regulations -- $1 trillion, or about 10 percent of the nation's entire economic activity each year.

So don't be fooled. You're paying real money to have the government protect you from yourself.

No, that's not really true either. You're really paying the government to try to protect other people who don't have enough common sense, responsibility or who simply choose to take some risks in life.

You may not care whether social engineering via lawsuits ruins America's fast-food industry. It wouldn't be the first.

It won't be the last.

Barry Smith is editor of the Nevada Appeal.


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