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MICHAEL HEAP

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THE 'COMPENSATION CULTURE' AND 'NIMBYism'

This paper first appeared in volume 5 of the 'Skeptical Intelligencer', 2002.

In recent years much concern has been expressed about the growing tendency for people to seek financial redress, mainly through the civil justice system, for suffering that may be caused by the negligence and incompetence (and occasionally ill-intent) of responsible others. It appears that a broad definition of 'suffering' is being employed and critics protest that this now covers everyday annoyance, disappointment, upset, and so on. Likewise, it is averred that the definition of 'other responsibility' has been widened at the expense of personal responsibility (e.g. when someone sues for injuries incurred while trespassing or when sufferers of lung cancer sue the manufacturers of the tobacco that they willingly smoked). For other commentators, this is a healthy sign that justice, and fairness, and the accountability of those in positions of responsibility are now the rightful expectations of all concerned.

A related trend is for people to take preventative action when a property development, highway, residential facility, or whatever is planned in their locality that they perceive will adversely affect their quality of life. The feared effects may be very serious - e.g. a health hazard such as toxic waste - or some loss of amenity, such as a walk in the fields, or even obstruction of a view of the countryside. Again this trend (popularly known as NIMBYism) is welcomed by some and deplored by others as, for example, a manifestation of greed and selfishness.

The reader who has read my contributions in previous sections of this journal (see 'Healing and Therapy in the Age of Mass Affluence' on this website) will correctly anticipate that my stance on both these trends is neither favourable nor pejorative. Instead I perceive that both developments are inevitable in an affluent society in which there is political, economic and social freedom and the continuous accumulation of knowledge and its beneficial application. Of particular relevance are the ever-rising expectations of the public that they have access to the increasingly diverse offerings of modern life, and that this is an entitlement and not simply a privilege.

That the 'compensation (or blame) culture' is indeed related to affluence is evident from the fact that leading the way is the most affluent society in history, namely the USA. (I emphasise this, as I have heard it said that these trends are the fault of the welfare state or socialism.) Moreover, looking back in history we see that the wealthy minority of the population showed no restraint in seeking redress for the slightest misfortune that they ascribed to others (usually their less fortunate fellow human beings); nor were they slow in guarding their enjoyment of their estates and property. Hence the modern retired middle class couple who oppose a housing development that would spoil the panoramic view from their newly acquired conservatory are only attempting what, in a previous age, the local aristocracy would have had no problem in accomplishing.

It would be tempting therefore to say that the privileges of the minority have now become the entitlements (if not then the preoccupations) of the majority (cf. adultery, divorce, heroin, and holidays in Spain). However, the minority were always more inclined to perceive their opportunities as entitlements.

A more comprehensive analysis of these phenomena requires us to acknowledge the principle of interdependence expostulated in my earlier paper: along with the above trends come the legal services with their own demands, their agenda of expansion and diversification, and their need to promote their own perceived authenticity. But more of that at another time.