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Balance and backlash

Last week, the Senate passed a bill that would make it significantly more difficult to file class-action lawsuits against companies. The bill, which will likely be passed into law, is designed to curb frivolous suits by transferring them to the federal level.

Supporters, like President George W. Bush and various business groups, say that the bill is good for the economy and bad for conniving lawyers who get rich through litigation.

Conniving lawyers, along with consumer and civil rights groups, feel differently. They say that the law would make it easier for companies to escape accountability and harder for citizens to be compensated when they are wronged.

Setting aside the merits of class-action reform, I think we can look to the “Class Action Fairness Act” as a perfect example of the extremism that has taken hold in American politics.

Bush is known for policies that favor large companies. He has weakened regulations that protect workers and the environment. He has vowed to make it harder to buy medicine from Canada rather than from U.S. drug makers. Now, he and his party are leading an assault on the last line of defense consumers have against companies: class-action suits.

The New York Times quoted the president, who explained his rationale for the bill: “A litigious society is one that makes it difficult for capital to flow freely, and a capitalist society depends on the capacity for people willing to take risk and to say there’s a better future, and I want to take a risk toward that future. And I’m deeply concerned that too many lawsuits make it too difficult for people to do that”

Bush has a good point. We do have a capitalist society, and free movement of money is essential. The threat of multimillion-dollar suits—which this bill is designed to lessen—impedes such movement.

Meanwhile, Bush’s lenient regulations and hard line on drug importation are supported by equally sound logic (more or less).

Any one of these policies is reasonable in a vacuum, but the effect of all three is devastating to consumers. Companies are less regulated, face less competition and have less fear of repercussions from wrongdoing. In attempting to make the law safe for capitalism, Bush has lost his sense of balance. His end is decent, but his means go much too far.

For once, though, I think we should cut Bush some slack. In this case, it is not his own lack of restraint, but the nature of America’s political climate that fosters the extremism we are seeing. Although the Republicans have a mandate from the last election, things could easily swing the other direction. When this happens, Democrats could strengthen regulations, allow drug importation, or scale back restrictions on class-action suits.

Bush hopes, however, that they won’t do all three—and that some of his pro-capitalist policy will remain intact. What we are witnessing almost resembles a long-term bargaining process. Republicans will enact policies that go too far, and in the ensuing Democratic backlash, some will be reversed. Then, perhaps, balance will be reached.

The obvious flaw in this process is that embittered Democrats could use the same extremist tactics as their rivals. They would go too far in the opposite direction, and the nation would be perpetually tossed from one end of the spectrum to the other.

The paradox facing party members in this political environment is that the threat of losing power motivates them to extremism—hoping that their actions will only be partially reversed. But at the same time, the more extreme their policies and rhetoric, the more likely they are to lose favor with voters. At once, they both fear and encourage a backlash.

If moderation is to be achieved, bargaining must take place in the short term. If the party in power is willing to compromise now—willing to seek a balance—then it will not have to worry about revenge later. And citizens won’t have to choose between two extremes.

Dave Kleban is a Trinity sophomore. His column appears every other Tuesday.

 

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