As the new year dawns, the biggest and most socially significant news out of jurisprudence is the Department of Justice’s action against Walmart. The DOJ is suing the retailing colossus for the alleged crime of enabling America’s other pandemic: opioid addiction. The DOJ argues that Walmart filled “thousands of controlled substance prescriptions that were not issued for legitimate medical purposes or in the usual course of medical practice.” With threatened fines of up to $67,627 per infraction, this is no trifling matter, especially since the complaint seemingly burdens Walmart with omniscience regarding the circumstances under which its 200 million-ish annual prescriptions are written.
But widening the lens, the DOJ suit is a further mile marker in a creeping social pathology that demands we hold anyone or anything responsible for problematic behaviors except the everyday Americans behaving problematically. While the so-called culture of blame is not breaking news per se, amid Wokeness and the ever-indulgent pronouncements from the burgeoning field of social psychology, the trend has metastasized into a panicked quest to project personal responsibility onto any convenient entity (Walmart), institution (the criminal justice system), inanimate object (a bullet) or even abstract concept (the patriarchy). This is not to exonerate Walmart, which may face a day of reckoning for its misdeeds, but the larger issue is that we careen toward a future in which no one is individually liable for anything. Especially sympathetic handling is reserved for outliers and mavericks from categories that are beneficiaries of intense Woke-tivism or postmodern compassion.
The DOJ suit follows a summer during which Black Lives Matter agitators and their media megaphones sold the notion that the only antidote to violent police encounters is for police to master deescalation skills, acknowledge their racism, and act more humanely. Plainly, there are episodes of police excess — but all summer long it seemed not even to occur to anyone that the potential for tragedy would be markedly reduced if citizens eschewed obvious predisposing behaviors: don’t have outstanding warrants as you’re driving recklessly sans license in a car with expired tags; above all, don’t flee from or get belligerent with cops.
Coincidentally, gun violence soared to levels unseen in decades in major American cities such as Chicago, New York, and Baltimore — but to listen to some observers, the carnage had little to do with gangs or other bad guys emboldened by flagging police morale. Rather, the Chicago Sun-Times blared from the national epicenter of gun violence, the culprit “is the nation’s perverse addiction to guns.” Of all possible questions to ask about America’s growing homicide problem, a source quoted during an anti-gun rally in Charlotte, NC, asked this one: “Why should a gun lie on the ground where a child could obtain it?” Or maybe the answer is to just get rid of all the ammo, the Philadelphia Inquirer suggested helpfully.
Related is the mass incarceration trope, which portrays imprisonment as if it were wholly unrelated to criminality. The buttressing literature drips with the language of victimization: We read of “the plight” of the “hundreds of thousands of black men [who] have lost their liberty” and “whose opportunities in life have been permanently diminished” by being “ensnared by” or “caught up in” the prison system. An Urban Institute paper, “Reducing Harms to Boys and Young Men of Color from Criminal Justice System Involvement,” barely mentions the reasons for this “involvement.” We learn that such young men have been “particularly affected” by the “expansion of the prison system,” a stunning case of cart-before-horse-ism that suggests that prisons are built for the express purpose of finding black men to fill them.
The BLM protests wrested the blame-shifting baton from the so-called immigration crisis, with its nightly dirge of sobbing mothers and children. Immigrants from Central and South American en masse dragged those children on an odyssey of precarious outcome, through thousands of miles of inhospitable, gang-infested terrain, without sufficient food, water, shelter, or sanitation. But when these hordes arrived unbidden at the U.S. border, America was suddenly responsible for them, and for any consequent harm to their families.
Little, however, so typifies today’s rush to non-judgment as the opioid epidemic. To be sure, addiction is a Rubik’s cube that confounds easy solution. But such truths are all the more reason why it’s so counterproductive to conceive people as wisps of pollen being buffeted about by the gusts of destiny. The more vexing the challenge, the more vital the role of human will in girding for battle and avoiding unforced errors. Why undercut human potency where it’s needed most? And yet impassioned report after impassioned report lamented the ‟victims of the opioid crisis,” or ‟menace,” as though pills unscrewed childproof caps and leaped into the closest person’s mouth. Now it’s Walmart’s fault. An emblematic quote from the release announcing the DOJ action, “The opioid crisis has exacted a catastrophic human toll…upon our country,” implies that the tragedy somehow exists apart from the human behavior that occasioned it, like some toxic weather system riding the jet stream across America.
Nanny statism historically argued that the defenseless populace requires protection against all environmental threats. Today’s crusades are far worse, rationalizing away even people’s innate frailty/venality and the impact of the same on others. These are not, after all, victimless crimes. Even leaving aside the damage addicts wreak on themselves and their loved ones, to depict addicts as innocents ignores the massive costs transferred to society as a whole — which is to say, to others who are indisputably innocents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the “total ‘economic burden’ of prescription opioid misuse alone in the United States is $78.5 billion a year, including the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement.” Do addicts bear no responsibility for mitigation? Are they not at minimum obliged to seek help before things get out of hand?
Surely the offenses that end in “mass incarceration” aren’t victimless. Though activists’ talking points tend to focus on drug crimes, 713,000 people are being housed in the nation’s state prisons for violent crimes — including 183,000 for homicide. To speak of such individuals being “ensnared by” the justice system seems fatuous indeed, if not downright offensive to the real victims.
Of course, environmental conditions are contributory factors in life’s outcomes, good and bad. Adulthood, though, presupposes the ability to navigate life intelligently and accept penalties for running aground. Even if Walmart could’ve been more judicious in filling prescriptions, one wonders why we should endorse the message that mere opportunity excuses guilt. Gambling is inescapable here in my adoptive Las Vegas hometown, but a competent adult knows better than to put his mortgage money and the kids’ college tuition on the line.
For all the cultural lip service given to personal empowerment, American policy makers increasingly act as if life were some grand marionette show where the unseen strings are pulled offstage. People become incidental to cause-and-effect, less actors than acted upon, bereft of agency.
Narcotics don’t go shopping for multiple doctors to prescribe them to the same user. Prisons don’t fill themselves. Warrants are not issued at random to innocents. A gun doesn’t pick itself up and shoot someone on the playground. Borders neither ask to be crossed nor issue crossers an implied warranty of a healing embrace into the national bosom.
Though apportionment of blame is a complex affair with myriad variables, the social contract works only if citizens appropriately weigh risks and take responsibility for self-inflicted wounds. Famed basketball coach and recent Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Lou Holz puts it like so: “The man who complains about the way the ball bounces is likely to be the one who dropped it.”