A New York man made headlines last week when he filed a lawsuit against White Castle Hamburgers claiming that his civil rights had been violated and that he deserved “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
White Castle’s crime: failing to have booths big enough for Martin Kessman, just shy of 300 pounds, to fit in. One would think that in a free society a dispute of this nature would need no governmental involvement at all, but apparently that is not the case.
This story reveals that not only do we have an epidemic of obesity, but we also have a system of laws that make citizens feel entitled to fit into the local burger booth enough that they’ll sue over it.
While often cited as an example of compassionate government and legislative success, the ADA that Kessman’s lawsuit invokes has become a bureaucratic nightmare with a slew of unintended consequences.
The outcome also indicates a larger march toward having sweeping categorical decisions made by central planners, rather than allowing the marginal decisions by individuals dictate our lives.
When individuals make choices through free markets, each person can make decisions based on their own marginal costs and benefits whether or not something is good for them. If someone doesn’t like the seating arrangements at their local burger joint, they can go to the one down the street. But according to the ADA, that isn’t good enough.
When individuals make choices through free markets, each person can make decisions based on their own marginal costs and benefits whether or not something is good for them. If someone doesn’t like the seating arrangements at their local burger joint, they can go to the one down the street.”
The law has led to an entire set of ADA-compliant building codes, which stipulate specifications for everything from toilets and telephones to fishing piers and saunas. A brief glance through the 142 pages of diagrams and stipulations will make a potential small-business owner’s head spin.
The ADA, and the bureaucratic power that it created, leaves federal regulators with a powerful and arbitrary role to make incremental decisions in the economy and people’s lives based only on categorical objectives.
Businesses can be forced to spend thousands, even millions of dollars to accommodate theoretically disabled customers that might arrive at their premises at any date in the future, given a court decision that doing so does not cause undue hardship to the business. The state, of course, decides what hardship is due and what is not.
The sad part of this story is that Kessman probably can reasonably sue White Castle based on the ADA. All you need is for the state to decide that being fat is a disability, and voila, under ADA requirements, he deserves “reasonable accommodation,” a vague term that allows government officials to force a private business to expend funds according to what a state dictates in order to satisfy the demands of lawsuit-hungry attorneys.
In his epic tome “The Road to Serfdom,” economist Friedrich Hayek notes that this kind of top-down approach inherently destroys liberty and substitutes the preferences of governmental elites for those of free individuals in society. It also erodes the foundations of a robust and spontaneous economy and encourages conflict and moral dissonance.
Unfortunately, we have traded compassion between free people for pseudo-compassion through government. Rather than make us better as a society, it has resulted in nothing but apathy, discord, and litigation. Lots and lots of litigation.
Steven Christopher is a graduate finance student in the C.T. Bauer College of Business and may be reached at email@example.com.