Tuesday, June 15, 2004

That benefits have costs means those who create the benefits are tempting targets for accusations from those who know how to dramatize the costs. This means doers are constantly on the defensive when attacked by the talkers.

These attacks are especially effective in a society where most people have not been taught to weigh costs against benefits or to subject hot rhetoric to cold logic.

“Safety” issues are ideal for talkers because nothing is absolutely safe. A vaccine may save the lives of 10,000 children but if five children die from the vaccine itself that can set off loud denunciations of “corporate irresponsibility” and “greed” on the part companies that produced the vaccine.

Some people die from reactions to peanut butter. If the government banned every food from which some people can die, we would all starve. If it banned every vaccine or drug from which people die, more people would die from diseases.

More than sloppy thinking and runaway rhetoric enables the talkers to harass the doers. The ever-growing jungle of laws and regulations provides a virtually unlimited number of grounds for lawsuits.

The talkers are in their natural habitat in courts where judges allow junk science to be used as evidence and juries are gullible enough to be impressed by glib and clever lawyers. The low cost of attacks and the high cost of defense tilts the system in favor of the talkers, especially since the talkers need pay no price for making totally unfounded accusations.

Both the talkers and the doers know this. That is why the doers so often settle out of court, rather than get tied up in endless litigation. This is then taken as proof of guilt.

Anyone who wants to build anything can face costly delays from environmental activists demanding environmental impact reports. Facts don’t matter. The talkers can always demand more information and object to the analysis.

All this takes time — and more time adds to the costs of borrowed money, on which interest must be paid, whether the building for which it was borrowed is being built or the machines and workers are idled while speculative complaints are investigated by bureaucrats in no hurry.

Not only the legal system and the regulatory bureaucrats enable talkers to impose high costs on the doers at low costs to themselves. So does the talkers’ ready access to the media.

Talkers are usually more articulate than doers, since talk is their specialty. Moreover, they can stage demonstrations the media will not only broadcast but give free air time for the talkers to make their accusations.

Jesse Jackson has made a science — and a lucrative occupation — out of accusations of “racism” against businesses. There is no way to prove you are not a racist, so the doer’s choice is to pay off the talker or face losses of customers from either bad publicity or an organized boycott.

These kinds of incentives and constraints help explain a strange anomaly many have noticed — big corporations contributing much more to left-wing causes than to conservative or libertarian causes.

“For every $1 major corporations gave to conservative and free-market groups, they gave $4.61 to organizations seeking more government,” according to a study by the Capital Research Center, a D.C. policy institute.

Why? According to the study: “Many advocacy groups win corporate funding by threatening lawsuits and boycotts and by petitioning government regulatory bodies. Regulatory policies, in particular, give corporations a built-in incentive to pay off left-wing activists.”

Talkers cultivate an aura of morally lofty goals, while depicting doers as selfish money-grubbers. But professional talkers are pretty good at collecting big bucks, some through legalized extortion and others by huge windfall gains as their building restrictions cause housing prices to skyrocket.

The talkers’ admirers include people struggling to pay inflated apartment rents and make huge monthly mortgage payments. Even their victims often admire talkers more than doers.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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