March 26 2013
Carrie L. Lukas
Americans are often told to envy Europe’s infrastructure. Living in the pot-hole-plagued traffic jam that is the suburbs of Brussels, I have a hard time understanding what they mean. Yes, trains connect major European cities, but that seems more an outgrowth of geography and population distribution than any ingenious government foresight. Moreover, if superior infrastructure is supposed to be the surefire Keynesian route to economic growth, then the European example is certainly unconvincing.
Yet there is something Americans should envy about European life, beyond the beautiful architecture and café culture: Europeans do not operate under the constant specter of litigation, which haunts and distorts American life.
Europeans don’t put signs near fireplaces warning that they get hot and you ought not stick your arms in them. They’ll serve you wine and beer at a public festival in a proper glass, and you won’t need a wrist band. Outdoor restaurants frequently feature playgrounds—yes, even those that serve alcohol on the premises—and they generally don’t have signs that warn that children play at their own risk. They assume you know that. Schools have rules about not bringing toy weapons, but if your five-year-old hides a squirt gun in his backpack, you don’t need to worry. No one is getting suspended. You can also fix him a peanut butter sandwich or cookies with nuts. If you daughter scrapes her knee, the school will put on a Band-Aid, even if you haven’t signed a release form.
The foundational assumption that people can be expected to behave rationally and no one is going to sue someone for no reason has big implications. Doctors will come to your house for a small fee and diagnose your illness. Doctors’ offices, like restaurants, also often operate out of family homes. The fear that something might not be up to code—that someone might slip on a loose rock and initiate legal action—is absent, making such flexible, unique arrangements possible. Stores and festivals sometimes offer childcare services: You’re given a number that you’ll need to pick your child up, but there is rarely even a paper to sign.
Americans have so long been saddled with a litigation culture that it’s hard to recognize the full weight of its effects. When it’s discussed as a policy issue, the focus is often on its considerable economic costs: All the money wasted on unnecessary compliance; all the small businesses shut down because they can’t keep up with the layers of regulation.
Yet the biggest cost is born by our culture and in the creation of a civil society that makes it near impossible for people to interact sensibly. A Maryland public school system just made headlines for forbidding parents on school premises from hugging anyone but their own child. Homemade baked goods, such as cupcakes to celebrate a child’s birthday, were also outlawed in the name of creating a “safe environment.” Yet Maryland is far from alone in its fearless crusade to criminalize ordinary human interaction and childhood behaviors. Stories of seven-year-olds suspended for biting a pastry into the shape of a gun, first graders sent home for talking about toy guns, or kindergarteners suspended for bringing a toy gun to school or just discussing shooting a bubble squirt gun at another child are depressingly commonplace. This isn’t just post-Sandy Hook anti-gun fervor. Similar stories abound of young children accused of “sexual harassment” or some kind of assault for over-zealous games of tag or ordinary playground horsing around.
Americans want to protect our children from violence, harassment, and bullying, of course. Yet most parents understand that there is a significant cost to going so far overboard. Trying to protect children from every mean utterance from a classmate and labeling a six-year-olds wrestling match a crime is a disservice to both the aggressor and the so-called victim.
American teachers and school administrators undoubtedly know that such “zero tolerance” is overkill. They know the difference between everyday teasing and roughhousing, which are natural parts of childhood, and true bullying. Yet dare they attempt to make such distinctions to their schools’ lawyers? Common sense is a luxury that few in America can afford.
This problem isn’t limited to schools. It’s in American offices’ rigid sexual harassment guidelines, omnipresent warning labels, and the onerous regulations that make it near impossible for someone to sell baked goods out of their own home. Look around you and you can see it. There’s a whole richness of interaction, the normal comfort of community, that’s being drained from American culture out of fear of frivolous lawsuits or breeching government’s endless regulatory code.
For a bake sale at my daughters’ school here in Belgium at Christmas, I made a cake that contained rum. I hadn’t thought about the issue of alcohol until I arrived. The cake stand organizer was confused when I asked if the rum cake was a problem: Did I really think that one could become intoxicated by a piece of rum cake? No, of course, I didn’t, I explained, but I wasn’t used to such common sense criteria. I am an American, after all.
Carrie is the managing director at the Independent Women’s Forum (www.iwf.org).