Who Is to Blame?

January 6, 2022 Updated: January 7, 2022


Darrell E. Brooks Jr. is accused of driving his SUV into a crowd of people. He allegedly killed six, and wounded over 60 others in Waukesha, Wisconsin. If found guilty, he deserves to be punished to the full extent of the law. Lock him up and throw away the key, would be the view on this matter of most decent people.

But Brooks drove an SUV. Only a crazy person, besotted with some wokist philosophy of responsibility, would hold the manufacturer of this vehicle blameworthy, along with Brooks, for the carnage allegedly created by the latter. Yes, without the vehicle, the perpetrator would not have been able to carry out this foul deed. The manufacturer was thus causally connected to this evil occurrence. But there was a lack of privity between the two. The creator of the automobile was indeed connected, causally, to this mass murder, but bears no responsibility for it whatsoever.

In like manner, the robber gang had breakfast at McDonalds before going off to rob stores. Had they not been fed, they wouldn’t have gone on their criminal spree. Yet it’s a gigantic stretch, a gargantuan one, to hold Ronald McDonald guilty of their felonious acts. Again, lack of privity.

Matters are not at all very different when it comes to holding gun manufacturers responsible when their products are misused. However, all too many people believe that this should be the case; this stretches to the present White House. Happily, there’s a law in the United States, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which shields firearms manufacturers and dealers from being sued when their products are used in the commission of crimes. President Joe Biden has called for the repeal of this law, but, so far, it’s still on the books.

Not so lucky are the producers of opioids. Here, once again, we see rampant irrationality. According to one complaint:

One of the biggest drug busts in history may finally be done. Two dozen pushers up against local, state and federal authorities are giving up. It took almost a quarter century of investigation, witness preparation, trial (in some cases) and settlement.

The pushers: a handful of giant pharmaceutical corporations; their product: opioids.

Authorities estimate that hundreds of thousands of Americans have died in the past two decades of overdoses related to prescription opioids. The drugs were sold by companies, some with household names, like Johnson & Johnson. Another company, Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, profited from the opioid crisis as well as from treatments for the very problem the company had helped create.

As it happens, there are now roughly 2,000 lawsuits pending against Big Pharma.

New York State Attorney General Letitia James is one of those leading the charge. Many more such lawsuits are in the offing. Estimates are that tens of billions of dollars are at stake.

But these pharmaceutical giants followed every relevant law, scrupulously. They provided their customers with a prescription product. Some of these patients misused these drugs in dangerous ways. There were, tragically, numerous deaths that resulted. One would think that no one would hold these business firms liable. One would be very wrong.

A similar error occurs when we consider traffic fatalities. Almost 40,000 Americans perish each year as a result. Most people blame speeding, texting, sleeping, driver error, intoxication, vehicle malfunction, bad weather, etc. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lists over 100 such elements. But these are all merely proximate causes, akin to the SUV manufacturer, McDonalds, gun producers, and large pharmaceutical companies. What is the ultimate, and hence blameworthy, antecedent? It is mismanagement on the part of federal highway authorities.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Walter Block
Walter E. Block is the chair in economics at Loyola University in New Orleans. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Mises Institute and the Hoover Institute.