Emission of Guilt

An old Australian judge of my acquaintance, an art collector and general connoisseur, now dead, alas, had no interest in cars and used to answer inquiries as to what car he possessed in the most lapidary fashion: “A green one.”

My interest in cars is scarcely greater than his; my main desideratum in a car is that it should start first time in the depths of winter. This is because for many years I owned cars that could not be relied upon to do so, and it was extremely tiresome to have repeatedly to call for assistance.

Nevertheless, the Volkswagen scandal interested me, though it did not altogether surprise me. What are regulations for but to stimulate the ingenuity of those who desire to get round them? I should be rather surprised if other car companies had not resorted to Volkswagen’s methods, in principle if not in detail. Of course, the tu quoque argument—you have done the same as I—is the first resort of the scoundrel, but it has a rhetorical force even if moral philosophers do not approve of it.

But what most interested me about the VW episode was the speed with which VW owners in Britain made inquiries of litigation lawyers as to whether they had grounds to sue. It used to be said that the definition of an instant is the time it takes for the first horn to sound after the traffic lights in Mexico City turn from red to green; but in Britain, and no doubt elsewhere, the definition might now be the time it takes for the first inquiry to be made of a litigation lawyer after some wrongdoing is publicly revealed—wrongdoing, that is, by people or corporations with deep pockets, for defendants are selected as much by capacity to pay as by anything they have done.

It goes without saying that corporations, being run by people, are capable of the deepest-dyed villainy, but that does not mean that the rest of the population is honest. What harm has VW so far done to the owners of its vehicles that they have grounds for legal action? I am sure that they, the owners, are already telling themselves lots of convenient lies, for example that they have been deeply traumatized by the revelation that their cars emit more pollution than they thought when they bought them.

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