No prizes for guessing who the founder is:
That 1963 [Corvair] compact is the largest artifact in the new American Museum of Tort Law that Mr. Nader has established here in his hometown in northern Connecticut. During a tour of the museum before its opening on Sunday, he said he hoped the museum would teach a new generation about the vital benefits of personal injury lawsuits and even, dare it be said, plaintiff lawyers. He wants to educate people about the hard-fought history of consumer protections that are now taken for granted — and that he says are under assault.
Still possessing that awkward theatrical touch that made him a progressive icon, Ralph Nader has an unusual idea for educating the young in the glories of modern tort law:
Mr. Nader also dreams of having drama students re-enact famous tort trials in a mock courtroom here and streaming the cases online to high schools, colleges and law schools. The staff hopes to arrange frequent school tours and to keep a visible online presence.
Pity the poor aspiring actor who has to play Ralph Nader. As if the life of a drama major isn't tough enough. Yet to Nader and his admirers - a shrunken number since his inadvertent assistance in electing George W Bush - the law is not a shield but an avenging sword of social justice. An attempt to accomplish the New Jerusalem through litigation instead of legislation.
Utopia, however, has it's price. A price that can now be measured in the trillions:
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that the annual cost of the tort system translates into $809 per person—the equivalent of a 5 percent tax on wages. The trial lawyers’ share—roughly $40 billion in 2002—was half again larger than the annual revenues of Microsoft or Intel. In 2002 the estimated aggregate cost of the tort system was $233 billion, according to the actuarial firm Tillinghast-Towers Perrin. That cost represented 2.23 percent of our gross domestic product. Over the next ten years the total “tort tax” will likely be $3.6 trillion.
To put that 2.23% in perspective the Department of Defense is going through about 3.8% of GDP at the moment. Keep that in mind the next time someone argues that defense spending is bankrupting the nation. This isn't to argue that tort law is inherently a bad thing. As Ricochet's own Richard Epstein has put it:
Tort remedies are essential to protect people (and their property) who do not have contractual relations with defendants from harms such as air and water pollution. The legal system should never allow self-interested parties to keep for themselves all the gains from dangerous activities that unilaterally impose losses on others—which is why the most devout defender of laissez-faire must insist, not just concede, that tough medicine is needed in these cases. The fundamental question here is one of technique: What mix of before and after sanctions will do the job at the lowest cost?
Which isn't the motivating philosophy behind the American Museum of Tort Law. Let's go back to the centrepiece not only of the museum but also of Ralph Nader's career: The Corvair. Contrary to popular mythology Chevrolet's most infamous product was hardly a death trap:
With incorrect tire pressures, a rapidly cornering Corvair driver could easily find the vehicle’s back end heading towards the front. The average US driver was simply not prepared to handle that eventuality. Could GM have done more to avoid the oversteer stigma? Yes. GM saved six dollars per car by not making the front anti-sway bar standard. And who knows how much (little) the effective rear camber-compensating spring adopted in 1964 cost.
GM hardly comes off as saintly in the story of the Corvair, if not quite as bad as Ford with the even more infamous Pinto. Yet what killed both cars wasn't litigation or Ralph Nader, it was something more prosaic and far more powerful: Competition. There were simply better cars on the market at comparable price points.
Neither car was particularly dangerous for its time. That automobiles as a whole have become safer over the years is not because Ralph Nader has decreed it so, but because cadres of talented engineers have done a yeoman's job of improving automotive design and construction. You can no more legislate better engineering than legislate economic growth or human health and happiness. That's a somewhat harder concept to put into a museum.