Things are not always what they seem


Everybody knows that fewer people in this country are religious these days.  And everybody knows that torts (civil lawsuits about non-contractual issues) are getting out of hand, putting an excessive burden on businesses in the US.

Knowing that, I had the idea to write an article that posited that civil lawsuits were taking the place of religion in settling issues.  The idea would have been that back in the day, when something bad happened and the cause wasn’t clear, people were more likely to assign blame to “God’s will” or “karma” or some other force associated with whatever higher power they believe controls their lives.  But now that fewer people believe in religion, and since humans seem to have a need to blame something other than themselves when anything bad happens, my theory was other humans were taking the place of supernatural forces as the target of blame , and that some of the increase in civil lawsuits could be explained by people trying to use the system to assign that blame.

This is not the sort of theory that can be easily proven, but it could be derived logically from the initial premises.  Writing about it would allow me to discuss the ways how humans can see patterns where none exist, especially when it allows them to divert blame from their own actions  I could blather about how religious belief could originally have followed from this.  I’d also get to write about how illogical religious fundamentalism was the source of many of the world’s problems, as was humanity’s inability to take responsibility for it’s own actions.

I figured it would be easy to find some statistics online to demonstrate the trends that would support my argument.  I did find that the number of people who report being a member of a specific religion has been going down over time, though the rate of decline has slowed since the 1960s.  But that doesn’t mean that all these people are becoming rationalists.  The number of people who say they aren’t religious at all is going up, but so are the number of people who say they are “spiritual” but don’t belong to any organized religious group.  Still, this data could be construed to support my idea.

On the other hand, the idea that civil lawsuits are getting out of control is not supported by some readily available basic data.  A report by the US Dept. of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics shows the total number of tort cases actually decreased 40% from 1992 to 2005 in the nation’s 75 most populous counties.   The median jury awards (adjusted for inflation) declined over the same period by more than 50%, though awards in some categories (medical malpractice and product liability) increased significantly.  

The idea that tort reform is necessary to protect businesses from frivolous lawsuits is, at first glance, just another of the, ahem, misstatements propagated by corporations and their Republican lackeys.  But the data above doesn’t tell the whole story.  Most civil lawsuits never go to trial.  A significant problem with the tort system is that It is so expensive to litigate that few deserving victims can afford to sue and many blameless defendants settle just so they can escape the expense and uncertainty of the civil justice system.  In this sense, our system is both anti-deserving plaintiffs, and anti-innocent defendants.  Anyhow, the data just isn’t there to conclusively support or refute the idea that inappropriate torts are a major problem.

Still, the idea that the courts are supplanting some of the functions previously served by religion is a fun one.  It’s just that at this time, the idea is more suited to a fictional treatment than an article that treats the underlying assumptions as true.

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