Living dangerously in our dreams

We take up reckless pursuits, but want the real world to insulate us against all possible risks
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The Independent Online
Recently police in an American city hired a bus. They put a few plainclothes cops on board and then drove it down a busy road. At a pre- arranged moment a car driven by another policeman crashed - quite gently - into the rear of this bus. The whole thing was filmed. Instantly, passing pedestrians rushed to board. One woman called to others to join her and, in moments, an almost empty bus was full. All of these new passengers were subsequently arrested and charged with fraud.

What these people were after was compensation. They wanted it to look as if they had been on the bus when the crash happened. They knew that no matter how gentle and harmless the impact, they could claim all kinds of exotic injuries, maybe even behavioural changes resulting from post- traumatic stress disorder. And they knew that the bus company, rather than go to court, would almost certainly settle, giving each of them a few thousand dollars.

The fact that the police dreamed up the trick, that the pedestrians fell for it - and, I stress, almost everybody dived on to that bus - tells us something very depressing about the United States. It has become a compensation culture in which the first reaction to every vicissitude of life, real or imaginary, is to seek out someone to sue. Blame, in such a culture, must always be ascribed to something that can be taken to court - never to the workings of chance and certainly not to oneself.

As a further crazy example, one man tried to kill himself on a New York subway but succeeded only in severing both his legs. He subsequently sued the transit authority for failing to prevent him from leaping, and won. The compensation culture accepts that you can be compensated for your own irresponsibility.

The natural reaction to such stories is to laugh at them as yet further examples of the mad, lawyer-infested nation that America has become. But are we going the same way? Is everybody going the same way? Gemma Deacon, aged 13, is suing the British Flag Carnival Club and, get this, her father, for allowing her to be knocked down by a cyclist. Maybe she has a case against the club, but I cannot believe, in a sane world, her father should be taken to court for "failing to supervise her adequately". And, of course, there was the recent case where policemen present at the Hillsborough football stadium disaster attempted to extract damages for their mental suffering. Happily they failed - policemen should expect to see unpleasant things occasionally.

But, win or lose, the point is that people have embraced the stupid, legalistic idea that the courts exist to indemnify them against life. And it is no easy thing to persuade them that this is a dangerous, destructive idea. Compensation is a strange, slippery conception, loaded with cultural assumptions. The Hillsborough police were obviously wrong; Gemma Deacon and her advisers have clearly gone too far. But what about those householders in Kent fighting for compensation, backed now by a Commons Select Committee, for the blight inflicted on their homes by the Channel tunnel rail link? In the context of the British middle classes' obsessive dependence on property values, their fight looks reasonable. But all investments are risks, and the rail link, in theory at least, benefits us all. The logic of such situations appears to be that the common good can only be advanced by bribery - that the "good" in question is not so "common" after all.

It is at this point that it becomes clear just how dangerous faith in the idea of compensation can be. Few now doubt that lawyers and their litigation are seriously hindering American competitiveness, particularly against relatively lawyer-free societies like Japan. And, in a wider context, it is obvious that all innovation, all risk, will be to some extent discouraged by the prospect of legal repercussions.

In medicine this becomes a very serious problem indeed. Doctors in America, and increasingly here, find themselves burdened by insurance against litigation. And perhaps more seriously, new medical technology is being assessed on its legal implications as well as on its possible benefits - the few harmed or not helped by medical innovation can effectively withhold the benefits from others by making any medical innovation too risky.

So the logical apotheosis of a compensation culture is a paralysed culture in which risks will not be taken because the potential cost is too high. It also involves an open-ended moral transformation. Rather than accepting life as the intrinsically dangerous occupation that it is, people will tend to assume that there is a right to safety. And this right can be infinitely extended. If we can sue for the outcome of our own suicide attempts, effectively removing ourselves from the equation of cause and effect, then we can sue for anything - depressives can press charges against their parents for being born into a bleak, joyless world, John Major can be taken to court for injuries arising from his new initiative to promote sports in Britain.

Good sense, we might think, will prevail. But will it? Lawyers have an insidious talent for subverting sense and reality when their fees are at stake. And, anyway, what is good sense in a fragmented and epistemologically confused society?

Perhaps the final oddity in all this is that the compensation culture is developing side by side with the culture of artificial risk. All sorts of entertainment now involves the celebration of physical risk. Bungee- jumping, rock-climbing, "white-knuckle" theme-park rides and the wild, militaristic fantasies of computer games, Hollywood movies and TV's Gladiators all place the possibility of death and destruction on a kind of recreational pedestal. In the absence of the possibility of salvation, people embrace the fantasy of destruction or violent triumph.

In the real, public realm we demand safety; in the fantasy, private realm we demand danger. Go to Disneyland and the children's trains that amble around the park at walking pace are festooned with warning signs, yet the Space Mountain ride strives furiously to scare the punters and convince them that the fear they feel is induced by a real risk, a real adventure. We want to feel the danger, but only from a distance, cocooned by the art of the engineer and the anxieties of the corporation.

This correlation between artificially induced fear and the need to believe that the world should be made safe by responsible people who can be sued is no accident. For the compensation culture is the unreal culture. It is afraid to accept the reality of the flesh and mind-threatening vicissitudes of life. But, equally, the nihilism that underlies this fear encourages us to play, safely, with destruction. In short, the compensation culture is the culture of cowards.

I'm sure those middle-class Kent householders will be offended by being placed in this context and perhaps, in their position, I, too, would demand my rights. But they are part of the compensation spectrum, whether they like or not. They are implicated in the peculiar, contemporary illusion that there is a right to freedom from risk, an illusion that could turn a bunch of "innocent" American pedestrians into a gang of fraudsters and which could turn us all into litigious, hi-tech cowards.