Culture > Books

Beltway Books: The law and its victims

Books | Legal paralysis, free-market virtue, and the ghosts of war

Issue: "Hong Kong," June 28, 1997

America has become a nation of victims. Nowhere is this more evident than the workplace, where litigants routinely extort huge judgments from employers who thought they were entitled to a competent performance from their workers.

In The Excuse Factory, Walter Olson details the scandal commonly known as employment law. There is, for instance, the wife-beating firefighter who claimed his actions were due to mental illness: He won a judgment for reinstatment to his job, with back pay. There was the employee who racked up more than 100 unexcused absences a year and won a racial discrimination case. And so on.

Mr. Olson details the entire depressing story. Contingency-fee lawyers pervert well-intentioned but poorly written laws. Interest groups, with the acquiescence of leading businesses and supposedly conservative politicians, press for new and expanded laws. Dubious litigants reap windfall gains. The public pays. Regrettably, the GOP Congress is AWOL on this issue.

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Despite the seeming obscurity of the title, Daniel Klein's Reputation is worth reading. It shows how free markets can handle many of the problems that today we routinely hand over to government. The book discusses private testing organizations, like Underwriters' Laboratory; financial certification services, such as Dun & Bradstreet; and even the role of such forms of accountability as gossip. It suggests that radical deregulation would both protect the public and save money.

Conservatives have routinely vilified Lawrence Walsh, the Iran-Contra special counsel, but his new book, Firewall, deserves respectful attention. While his investigation was, in one sense, politics by other means, it dealt with serious constitutional issues. We are never likely to determine exactly what President Reagan knew, but it seems clear that some of his aides knew more than they admitted. It is an episode about which anyone who fears governmental abuse of power should be concerned.

The ghost of Germany hangs over President Clinton's campaign to expand NATO. With Britain, France, and Germany collectively spending more on defense than Russia, it's hard to justify a continued U.S. military presence in Europe. But many Europeans still don't trust Germany. An interesting look at that nation's legacy is provided by Brian Ladd in The Ghosts of Berlin. He describes how the landscape itself reflects Germany's struggle to accept its troubled past and forge a positive future. It makes for a fascinating read.

The principal ghost hanging over Washington remains the Vietnam War. No visit to the nation's capital is complete without a visit to the Vietnam monument, with its chilling listing of all those who died in the conflict. In A Time for War Robert Schulzinger tracks the war from its beginning under the French through America's humiliating exit. He charges that Richard Nixon dithered, costing countless lives, even after deciding that the conflict could not be won. This was not Washington's finest hour.


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