Opinion

Defending common sense in 1776 and 2011

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

As Americans celebrate Independence Day, it’s important to remember the individuals who laid the foundation for the freedoms we enjoy today.

One of the most influential reformers of 1776 often overlooked in our history books is Thomas Paine. Paine’s pamphlet, “Common Sense,” turned public opinion against the autocratic rule of the King of England and planted the seeds of change in the colonies.

In my modern edition of his revolutionary pamphlet, a biography of Paine says that this English-born founding father was “poorly educated, unskilled, beset by marital and job failures and by bankruptcy.” We can all be thankful that those obstacles didn’t stop him from leading his fellow colonists to liberty!

Historians tell us that his writing helped inspire Thomas Jefferson when he was writing the Declaration of Independence, and that John Adams once said, “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

In the opening of “Common Sense,” Paine asserts that “a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom.” In other words, we need to regularly analyze the laws and customs that govern our lives to determine whether we have them because they are right or because they’ve simply become a habit.

In 2011, we need to ask ourselves if the laws, procedures and court rules that govern the process of civil justice in our society are there because of habit or because they are right. The importance of doing this was underscored a couple of weeks ago when our organization announced the results of our annual Wacky Warning Label Contest. Following the contest, we received calls from reporters around the world who wanted to know why Americans put up with all of the ridiculous lawsuits that have produced warning labels like the one on a four-inch-long fishing lure that says: “Harmful if swallowed.”

These reporters live in countries that have a “loser pays” system governing lawsuits. All advanced countries in the world have this system, except America. If you sue someone in one of those countries and lose, you pay their legal bills. It’s a huge deterrent to frivolous lawsuits, so they don’t see wacky labels that warn them about obvious things.

We have so many lawsuits in the U.S. now that according to a respected think tank, the Pacific Research Institute, Americans would save $589 billion every year if our tort costs were simply comparable in size with other industrialized countries. Imagine if that money was spent on job creation or innovation instead! It’s possible to eliminate this burden on our economy, but first, we have to break our long national habit of putting up with the abuse of our civil justice system that has produced these enormous costs.

It’s time for America to get serious about ending lawsuit abuse and bring our costs in line with other advanced countries. We have to admit that autocrats still exist in America, but that today they are judges who ignore the law and certain plaintiff lawyers who want all Americans to obey their interpretation of the law.

Bob Dorigo Jones, who serves as Senior Fellow for the Center for America, is the author of the bestselling Remove Child Before Folding, The 101 Stupidest, Silliest and Wackiest Warning Labels Ever. He also hosts the radio commentary, “Let’s Be Fair,” that airs on radio stations across the country.