Anne Applebaum recently wrote an interesting piece that accuses Americans of wanting too much from government. As part of the argument, she highlights our litigation culture and its effects on our society. She wrote:

If you don’t live in this country all of the time, and I don’t, here is what you notice when you come home: Americans — with their lawsuit culture, their safety obsession and, above all, their addiction to government spending programs — demand more from their government than just about anybody else in the world. They don’t simply want the government to keep the peace and create a level playing field. They want the government to ensure that every accident and every piece of bad luck is prevented, or that they are fully compensated in the event something goes wrong. And if the price of their house drops, they will hold the government responsible for that, too.

There is certainly some truth to this. I didn’t appreciate just how much liberty we Americans have lost as a result of our legal system until I lived abroad.

I have three little kids so have visited many playgrounds around Europe, and they are very different from those in the United States.

We live in Vienna, Austria, and are fortunate to have a gorgeous playground just a block from our apartment. Yet when I first went there, I was shocked: there are rope bridges more than 6 feet off the ground, zip lines that send kids of all ages zooming across a lawn where toddlers roam close by, and big climbing structures with little to prevent kids from hurling themselves off the top. My first thought was that you would never see such equipment made available to the public in the U.S. The potential for someone to sue the city (or whoever was responsible for providing the playground) for a broken arm or concussion was too great.

As a mom, these more adventurous playgrounds have meant that I have to do a little more policing of my kids to prevent them from playing on equipment that’s too advanced for them. Yet it’s obvious that these playgrounds are also much more fun. And after two years and countless hours logged on European playgrounds, I haven’t witnessed more than skinned knees and typical bumps and bruises.

When I meet other Americans on the playground, the topic almost instantly comes up. We rave about the playgrounds here and lament how lawsuits prevent such things from being offered back home (I had just such a conversation yesterday, and the woman I met (not me) was the first to mention angrily the problem of over-litigation in the U.S.).

You can see differences not just in the playgrounds, but in many other aspects of life here. Here, public festivals serve beer and wine in glasses (no one checks for ages or worries that someone might break a glass and cut themselves or another, which I presume is why public events in the U.S. use all plastic). Some restaurants (even those that serve alcohol) have playgrounds on the premises, so adults can have a drink while watch their kids play.

At some festivals and in many of the malls, there are little childcare centers. I can drop my kids off and go have dinner with my husband. You sign you kids up and give them a telephone number, but you never even have to sign a release. Once my toddler was returned to me with a skinned elbow. I didn’t think anything of it, and neither did the woman who was watching him. My daughters have been in preschool in Vienna, and when I signed them up, I just filled out an application that was just a page or two in length. That was it. Now we are now returning to the U.S. and I have to fill out countless forms to enroll my kids in school on topics as ridiculous as granting permission to give my child a band-aid.

Our litigation culture is wasteful, unnecessary, and diminishes our quality of life in countless ways. Yet I think Applebaum is wrong to assume that the litigation culture exists because most Americans support it. Far from it. I bet that overwhelmingly most Americans abhor the idea that someone would sue a city if their child had an accident on a playground. Most parents would prefer that caretakers use commonsense. They understand that there is a one-in-a-million chance that their child might have an allergic reaction to a band-aid, and would never consider suing. The problem is, it only takes one litigious person to change the rules for everyone. One lawsuit can destroy a business. That’s why everyone-from the city officials who plan festivals and set up playgrounds to the business owners who run restaurants and preschools-play it safe to avoid any potential for a lawsuit.

I believe few Americans know just how big the costs are that we pay for this over-litigation. It’s really hard to see how much we have lost until you leave the country. Hopefully, more Americans will become aware of the very high price-and not just in terms of dollars, but in quality of life-we pay for the existing legal system and lawsuit culture, and will encourage policymakers to do something to change it.