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Life Without Lawyers: Restoring Responsibility in America Paperback – February 1, 2010
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I'd give the book four and a half stars if I could, only because Howard has effectively tackled only the easy side of the problem -- pointing out that it exists. His solutions seem inadequate or incomplete. We need leaders, perhaps a crisis will help, you should join organizations promoting changes in the way medical malpractice cases are handled, visit my website. OK, but even if every person who reads this book does everything Howard suggests, can it outweigh the natural imbalance between the inertia of large groups of people who are each hurt only slightly by a problem (and who may not perceive the problem at all) versus the large organizations that benefit from the status quo?
There are two main points in the book. One, is that there are too many rules prescribing how to do things. These rules derive from the assembly-line mentality that arose from the Industrial Revolution. While some rules are necessary in any complex endeavor, such as a business, government, or school, our society has gone overboard with rules and organization. Too many rules stifle individual initiative and decision making. Howard presents many examples of this in the public schools. Teachers in New York City are forbidden from calling on students who raise their hands during the first part of class. A mother of a third grader, who arrived with a supply of birthday cupcakes, was turned away because there is a rule against parents in the classroom. Teachers write out detailed course plans every week that no one ever reads. Loudspeakers constantly blare out announcements, interrupting classes and making it impossible for teachers and students to concentrate. No Child Left Behind made things worse by focusing on standardized testing. Teachers' union contracts dictate hours worked, limit teacher duties, and make it virtually impossible to fire incompetent teachers.
The second main point is that since the 1960's individual rights have trumped concerns over the common good. "Let any individual who feels aggrieved bring a legal claim for almost anything" (p. 23). This mindset arose from a desire to remedy abuses due to racial and gender discrimination. The problem is, however, that "[u]nlike constitutional rights, which shield citizens from state power, these new rights gave citizens a sword against other free citizens" (p. 23). It isn't hard to find examples of how citizens utilize lawsuits as swords against other citizens. In 2007, a Washington, D.C. lawyer sued his dry cleaner for $54 million because he claimed that they lost a pair of pants. This idiotic and absurd case, which should have been immediately dismissed, was allowed to go on for more than two years, costing the family owning the dry cleaner over $100,000 in legal fees. While they won the case, they ended up having to close the store. Another example is a medical malpractice case. A dermatologist advised a patient to remove skin based on a biopsy indicating malignancy. The patient got a second opinion which indicated no malignancy, and didn't get the skin removed. After getting terminal cancer several years later, the patient sued the first doctor on the basis that the doctor should have been more insistent about getting the skin removed. While the doctor prevailed in the case after seven years of legal battling, it could hardly be called a victory.
The result of out-of-control lawsuits is that Americans don't trust the justice system anymore. They become defensive in their behavior, refusing to take risks out of fear of being sued. The most familiar and costly example of defensive behavior is in the field of medicine. Unnecessary care accounts for 30% of total health care spending. Nursing homes send dying ninety-year-olds to intensive care units, so that they can't be sued for negligence in the person's death. Doctors have to document everything, in case they have to justify their decisions in court. Minor surgeries require expensive and unnecessary preoperative tests to prevent the providers from being sued.
The threat of lawsuits, combined with burdensome regulation, has eroded discipline in public schools. In a 2001 survey, 43% of high school teachers said they spent more time maintaining order than teaching. One in seven teachers in urban schools has been physically assaulted by his students. In New York City more than 60 steps and legal considerations are required to suspend a student for over 5 days. "Just sending a disruptive student out of the classroom requires layers of bureaucratic compliance" (p. 104). A violent autistic child in Hartford, CT, was kept in a regular classroom because his parents, exercising their rights under federal law, refused to allow him to be transferred to special ed. The school had to institute formal legal proceedings and receive a judge's order to remove the disruptive child. After 2 years of hearings and thousands of dollars of expense, the school finally received the order to move the child.
The fear and distrust of authority that began in the 1960's was a major factor that led to our current legalistic mess. We tried to outlaw any type of discretion by people in positions of authority--teachers, administrators, managers, and government executives--by replacing this discretion with a tangle of rules and threats of litigation. But there is no substitute for good judgment, and good judgment relies on subjective and intuitive factors. Having to prove the correctness of decisions in legal proceedings leads to worse decisions. It's true that people can explain why they did something, but only to a point. These explanations rarely rise to the level of legal proof.
The only problem with this book is that it lacks an index. I don't remember ever reading a nonfiction book without an index.
Due to excessive regulation and litigation, America in the early 21st century is a shell of its former self. We've become afraid to take risks, afraid to use our judgment, and afraid to do what we think is right. Is this the type of mentality that motivated the early pioneers, people who risked everything to settle an unknown and sometimes hostile country? Is this the type of mentality that motivated the great American inventors, entrepreneurs, and other creative people?
I recommend this book to all Americans.