Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Walter Olson has a provocative piece in Reason today about the government's role in various torts that are typically considered primarily due to private actors. One representative excerpt:
Asbestos exposure has been a genuine public health calamity, having caused much death and disability among exposed workers. Much of the early journalistic coverage, taking its lead from Paul Brodeur's early series in The New Yorker, has treated the episode as a case study in the callousness of private enterprise, which is said to have exposed workers to the lethal mineral for decades until at last brought to heel by the efforts of public-health activists, government regulators, and trial lawyers. That's consistent with the wider conventional view, which treats hazardous products as a sort of standing reproach to capitalism: Businesses foist such products on us in search of profit, the narrative goes, while government protects us from them. And there is much in the asbestos debacle that does reflect discredit on private companies' actions.
Yet the government, our alleged protector, has done much at all levels to promote products later assailed as needlessly unsafe, from tobacco to lead paint, from cheap handguns to Agent Orange. Often the state is at least as aware of the risks as the businesses that distribute the product, and in at least as good a position to control or prevent them. But-shaped and propelled by the incentives provided by our litigation system-our process of organized blame hardly ever puts the government in the dock.