The Trouble With John Edwards

Edwards’ Cognitive Dissonance

by James Ostrowski by James Ostrowski

John Kerry, who I predicted on December 3rd would be the Democratic nominee, has selected John Edwards as his running mate. I think he would have preferred Gephardt, the good soldier, to the charismatic Edwards, so Kerry must have concluded that he needs Edwards to beat Bush.

Here’s what I wrote about Edwards after he came in second in Iowa —

So Kerry’s in first place in Iowa! You heard it here first and you heard it nowhere else to my knowledge. . . .

But what about Edwards? I wrote him off but he shows signs of life. Edwards is a mystery to me. Opaque. Two years ago, I saw him out of the corner of my eye on C-Span and thought to myself: who’s this dufus Congressman and where’s he from? I was shocked to learn he was a Senator!

When I heard Edwards was a pretender to the throne, I decided to do a hit piece on him. I looked for the gory details, the crazy legislative record, the quirky quotes. I found nothing! There was no there, there. The guy managed to pass several years in the Senatarium — the millionaires’ club — without leaving a trace.

I think people are writing their own fantasy onto the Edwards blank slate. This fantasy too shall pass, just as the Dean fantasy passed when he brought the Hollywood liberals into Iowa. Howard, it’s Iowa, not the Upper West Side! [Entry — January 15, 2004]

Edwards’ main claim to fame is that he made a lot of money as a personal injury trial lawyer. Will Americans elect a trial lawyer to national office? It wouldn’t be the first time. One thinks of Adams, Jefferson and Lincoln. Twenty-four signers of the Declaration of Independence were lawyers. But a personal injury lawyer? An "ambulance chaser"?

A person who is injured because of another’s acts should have the right to seek compensation from the tortfeasor. That compensation must extend to non-monetary damages. One example proves the point. If a woman is raped but has no medical injury and no lost wages, should she be denied compensation for pain and suffering?

The problem with personal injury lawsuits is not the core principle, which a true libertarian would be hard-pressed to deny. Rather, liability for injuries has been extended beyond any reasonable definition of causation. People who stupidly bring on harm to themselves have nevertheless been allowed to blame others with deep pockets. The tort system has been corrupted by the infusion of a welfarist, redistributionist, soak-the-rich ethic.

Jurors are drawn from a society which has lost respect for property rights. Jurors think nothing of rendering huge and incomprehensible verdicts because generations of politicians have taught them not to worry about who is going to pay for huge and incomprehensible federal budgets. It’s just paper money. A system originally based on individual rights and personal responsibility has been transformed into a tawdry race for big bucks from those with deep purses, acquiesced in by jurors whose envy of the wealthy has been stoked by politicians for decades.

My thesis is proven by the marriage between plaintiffs’ lawyers and the Democratic Party. Trial lawyers are among the biggest contributors to Democratic candidates. They therefore join league with the entire liberal-welfare-regulatory-state program. Ironically, those who wish to retain the core of a tort litigation system based on individual rights and personal responsibility end up funding politicians whose platform is premised on the destruction of those libertarian values. And this, even more than the plaintiff bar’s increasing efforts to impose liability on innocent deep pockets, is why we should be wary of plaintiffs’ lawyers in politics.

Like any good lawyer, trial lawyer Edwards would have emphasized the individual responsibility of the defendants he sued in court. Yet, no such message appears on his website where he outlines his policy proposals. He would make the taxpayers responsible for paying one year of college tuition for every student. What did we do to those students to deserve being forced to compensate them? What did the students do to deserve such largesse other than breathe? No trace of individual responsibility there.

Edwards would make taxpayers pay for health insurance for other people’s uninsured children — 12 million of them. What tort did we commit to deserve this plaintiffs’ verdict against us? And without even a trial to defend ourselves! Edwards wants to create a "National Database for Medical Records and Billing," presumably one that any good hacker could break into.

Edwards would cut taxes for companies that promise to make things in the United States. Thus, responsibility for such decisions will pass from individual companies to the bureaucrats. Form madness and legal fee sadness will also result. Since we are too irresponsible to do research, Edwards would increase federal spending on that. This itself is irresponsible since the federal government is broke. Edwards doesn’t care about that detail as he makes a long series of proposals to help senior citizens get free medical care. No longer will people be responsible for themselves or their families. Some anonymous taxpayers will pay.

Edwards is a big believer in tax credits of various kinds. He doesn’t trust people to spend their money the right way. They are not responsible enough. Edwards will tell them how. He unequivocally supports HUD, perhaps the worst federal department of all time. (Okay, the IRS.)

Edwards boasts of his success as a trial lawyer who held individuals responsible for their specific alleged misdeeds. Yet, his political program is built upon the exact opposite principle. His proposals strip away freedom and responsibility from people and businesses, and force them to be responsible for the infinite needs of millions of total strangers. His political philosophy mirrors the modern corruption of the tort system. Forget individual responsibility and aim for the deep pockets.

In grammar school, the nuns used to tell us that freedom requires responsibility. Years later, I realized that the reverse is also true: responsibility requires freedom. If John Edwards has his way, we will have less of both.

July 7, 2004

James Ostrowski is an attorney in Buffalo, New York and author of Political Class Dismissed: Essays Against Politics, Including "What’s Wrong With Buffalo." See his website at