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Escape from Responsibility

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The welfare state teaches the implicit lesson that you are not responsible for yourself. You will be taken care of. The “safety net” will catch you if you fall. And because of that, you may be required to do certain things and prohibited from doing other things — all in the name of taking care of you and others.

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that this ethic spills over into the legal system. More and more, the system is used in novel ways to pervert the notion of responsibility. We see many cases where people seek to blame others for their own misconduct. A university president, for example, gets caught making harassing telephone calls and blames some childhood incident. A man who kills women blames pornography. And on and on.

Now this notion is being taken another step. Bona fide victims try to hold third parties responsible for the crimes committed against them. Last year James Perry was convicted of killing three people, including an invalid boy, in Maryland. He was sentenced to death. The divorced husband of one of the victims is to be tried for contracting the killings to inherit the money from a medical malpractice suit. All that is proper. Perry is a monster, and if the ex-husband contracted for the murders, he too is culpable for actively facilitating the crimes.

The wrinkle is that the daughter of one of the victims is suing Paladin Press, publisher of the book Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Contractors . According to the plaintiff, James Perry bought Hit Man a year before the murders and apparently followed the book’s recommendations. The plaintiff’s attorney, Howard L. Siegel, says: “It’s a murder manual. Perry bought the book from Paladin, he followed 27 instructions in the book, and he executed three human beings.”

Let’s accept those as facts. Should the publisher of the book be held liable? One is hard pressed to come up with a solid justification. In a free society, a basic distinction is made between acts and words. Furnishing information on how to kill a human being is not the same as killing a human being. Many novels and movies, not to mention technical nonfiction works, provide information on how to kill. That information could be used to murder. Are novelists, movie producers, and technical authors to be held responsible for the use to which their information is put? The attorney for the plaintiff says that what distinguishes the Paladin book from other sources of information is intent. But neither the publisher nor the author of Hit Man had any obvious intent to see the actual victims in the crime (or anyone else) killed. They simply furnished information on how to kill. That information can be used in defensive as well as in criminal killings.

I don’t wish to portray the author or publisher of Hit Man as admirable. They simply are not liable for the murders other people commit, even if the killers use the information in the book. Free speech and free press are easy to defend in the case of uncontroversial words. It is precisely when the words are controversial, even odious, that the friends of liberty have to speak up. If freedom was applied only to things that bothered no one, it would be an insipid thing indeed.

The attempt to hold Paladin liable is similar to recent legislative proposals to hold gun manufacturers liable when their products are used in crime and pornography publishers liable when their consumers commit sex offenses. Once the principle is accepted that someone other than the conscious participants in crime are responsible, there is no stopping point. This notion must be condemned without reservation.

Here is another recent twist on legal liability: Massachusetts and several other states are suing the tobacco industry to recover money spent by their Medicare programs on people who suffer smoking-related illnesses. The theory is that the cigarette companies caused these people to become ill, costing the taxpayers millions of dollars; hence, they should reimburse the state.

There is a host of problems with the theory. First, the tobacco companies don’t force anyone to smoke. People choose to do so. Moreover, people quit every day; there are more ex-smokers in America than smokers. Advocates of those lawsuits say the tobacco companies withhold information about the risks of smoking. But that doesn’t wash. People have long known that smoking entails risks. King James I, in 1607, said that tobacco “is noxious to the lung.” That was a little more than 100 years after the Europeans learned about tobacco. The reference to cigarettes as “coffin nails” was coined in the 19th century. The biological effects of nicotine were discovered about a century ago. It cannot be seriously maintained that people who smoke don’t know there are risks. In fact, economist W. Kip Viscusi points out that smokers overestimate the risks of smoking.

Another problem with the theory behind the suits is that smokers who die prematurely are most likely saving, not costing, the taxpayers money. The notion that smokers create otherwise unnecessary medical costs could only be true if nonsmokers lived forever and did not need medical care. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Smokers who die prematurely may have some very visible medical costs. But as Frederic Bastiat taught us, we must look at what is unseen, as well as what is seen. A smoker who dies early won’t get other ailments and require other medical expenses later. He won’t, for example, spend years in a nursing home. He won’t linger with Alzheimer’s disease. When all this is netted out, smokers on average are probably not creating the spillover effects that people believe. They are likely net contributors to Medicare and Social Security, since they collect fewer benefits than those who live longer. A government study in 1993 found that if the tax on cigarettes were to truly reflect smokers’ actual spill-over effects, it would have to be cut .

The more fundamental objection to the suits, however, is that it exposes the flaw in programs such as Medicare. When government forces the taxpayers to pay for other people’s medical care, it will inevitably try to control their behavior. We’ve seen that before. The advocates of compulsory motorcycle-helmet laws argued that since cyclists with head injuries may end up public charges, the government has a right to require the use of helmets. On such grounds, the government could outlaw tobacco. (The suits are probably intended to make the cost of producing cigarettes prohibitive.) But why stop with tobacco? Diets heavy in fat may contribute to the development of heart disease and premature death. Should the people who raise beef cattle and make ice cream have to repay Medicare? Should citizens be stopped from eating beef and other fatty foods? Should we all have to follow a government-prescribed diet so our fellow citizens won’t have to pay for coronary-bypass operations? It is hard to see where the principle stops being applied.

For that and other reasons, we would be better off if Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and all similar programs were scrapped. The more government is involved in “safety net” activities, the more plausible excuses it will have to regulate people’s behavior. That regulation will always be presented as a way to protect the taxpayers from exorbitant costs. For example, the more the government insures people against floods and other natural disasters, the stronger grounds it will appear to have to regulate where people may build their homes. Land-use regulation can be sold as a way to minimize the payout from the public treasury.

The only way to avoid that trap is to reject the safety net in the first place. The best argument against Medicare and Social Security is that they rob people of their independence.

An old Spanish proverb goes: “God said, take what you want, and pay for it.” Good advice.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.