7. Consumer Protection

Begin in agreement, for example: We need a marketplace that is fair to everyone.

Our values: Justice, equal justice, civil justice, equal opportunity, fairness, fair rules, fair markets, level playing field, security, safety, protection

Our vision: We need a marketplace that is fair to everyone. That requires fundamental rules to ensure consumer products are safe and the terms of sales and investments are open and honest. In four ways, we need to guarantee that everyone plays by the same fair rules by: (1) ensuring that food is safe, drugs are pure, and products are free from dangerous defects; (2) compelling all businesses to follow basic rules of economic decency; (3) protecting individuals’ private information; and (4) guaranteeing justice for average Americans and small businesses in civil litigation.

Conservatives argue against consumer protections on the grounds that such requirements interfere with the free market. But American markets are not, and never have been, free of government influence. Governments not only inspect food and drugs, regulate pollution, and impose safety and health standards, they also provide subsidies, contracts, tax breaks, patents and copyrights, protection from imports, and erect barriers to labor organizing.

There is never a question of whether government is involved in markets, the only question is who benefits from the involvement.

That’s why progressives favor fair markets instead of free markets. By fair, we mean markets where governments work to create a level playing field so that individuals and small businesses compete on a reasonably fair basis against the rich and powerful. That is the point of consumer protection. (For more about fair markets, see Chapter 19.)

When you fight for laws that protect customers from unfair contract provisions and outright scams, state your arguments in favor of fair rules and level playing fields and against policies that rig the system to benefit the rich.

One type of consumer protection that has been under continuous attack is labeled tort reform by conservatives.

Torts and Civil Justice

The system that handles lawsuits among individuals and corporations should be called the civil justice system.

Don’t say . . . Say . . .
Tort reform

Lawsuit abuse

Trial lawyer

Personal injury lawyer


Civil justice

Equal justice, justice

Just and fair compensation

Hold corporations accountable when they duck responsibility for misconduct

Rig the system

Why . . .

The right-wing tort reform strategy is to focus attention on the victim’s lawyer and ignore the victim, the injury, the misconduct and the perpetrator. We must do the opposite: focus on victims, injuries, misconduct and perpetrators, not the attorneys. Americans understand that courts must deliver justice, so use that term. And polls show that voters are actually more worried about corporate abuse of consumers, employees and shareholders than abuses by lawyers or plaintiffs.

Make it clear that what our right-wing opponents call tort reform isn’t reform at all. It’s a cruel shifting of costs from rich companies that caused injuries to the unfortunate people who were injured. And that’s unfair. Whenever possible, use local examples to make your case and get the focus back where it should be.

Say . . .
Our courts must deliver justice to all. We cannot deny people just and fair compensation for real injuries, especially when they’re taking on rich and powerful corporations. We need a level playing field. This right-wing proposal would rig the system to shift the cost of injuries from a corporation that’s at fault to the victim who is innocent. Our goal is to protect you and your friends, neighbors and friends.

Why . . .

Why say we cannot deny … just and fair compensation instead of we must ensure they receive just and fair compensation? Persuadable voters are more strongly moved by a plea framed as protecting people from being denied something than one framed as giving or providing that same right.

Don’t say . . . Say . . .
Give rights Don’t deny rights

Right wing argument: Tort reform saves everyone money by stopping frivolous litigation.

Say . . .
The goal of our legal system is justice. This kind of legislation rigs the system to make it harder for injured Americans to hold wrongdoers accountable. Rich and powerful corporations push for this special treatment because it shifts the responsibility of paying for the cost of injuries from them—the ones who caused the damage—to the innocent victim. That is clearly not justice.

Right wing argument: We need tort reform because medical malpractice lawsuits jack up health care costs.

Say . . .
The inherent purpose of our court system is justice. We should not rig the system to benefit either one side or another. In addition, the Congressional Budget Office found that restricting lawsuits for medical negligence would have virtually no effect on the price we pay for health insurance. At the same time, it would punish innocent victims. That’s not justice.