3/06/2003

The Economist likes to poke fun at Americans, being a British magazine, and a recent article entitled "the logic of irrational fear" sought to analyze "Americans’ perception of risk," as revealed by their reaction to the sniper. This was the part that I liked: "Experts seem to agree that Americans find it harder than most people to evaluate risks accurately. Lawsuits, labels on coffee cups ('Warning: the beverage you are about to enjoy is extremely hot'), even political pronouncements all often suggest it is possible to avoid danger altogether." Of course a taste for lawsuits and utopian political rhetoric don’t prove anything about a people’s ability to "evaluate risk accurately." Liability litigation is about greed, first and foremost. Your average American knows his coffee’s good and hot. Probably every one of us (clever risk-assessing Brits included) at one time or another has failed to accurately evaluate just how hot, and has burnt his tongue. In most places this would not turn into a lawsuit, just a lesson that you should be careful to let your coffee cool a bit before drinking it. These little labels on everything are not because people are stupid, they’re there because people are shrewd. And greedy. The rules say you have to warn us first and if you don’t we can sue the pants off you. That’s what American’s are thinking when they get burnt.

When I was a toddler there were no special safety measures to "childproof" your home. You would not have thought to sue the furniture manufacturer if your child was running through the house, fell, and split his little head open on the corner of the coffee table, as I once did. Nowadays Americans are much more educated as to the possibilities for plunder from life’s every little blunder. They are just as savvy at assessing risk as anyone. If you wanted to prove otherwise you might look at whether more of them actually do burn their tongues than anywhere else, instead of whether they sued for it afterwards.

It is true, however, that outside of New England Americans have no idea how to maneuver roundabouts. Brits find that pretty funny, too.

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