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Caveat Emptor, Boeing

Summary:
Caveat emptor is one the basic building blocks of just law. “Buyer beware” is the lynchpin of commerce. If the seller is responsible for flaws in the product (caveat vendidor), there will be precious few goods or services ever supplied. For who would want to grant any disgruntled consumer open sesame to engage in a lawsuit? This includes products that have “danger” written all over them, at least potentially, such as knives, guns, scissors, hedge clippers, razor blades, automobiles, planes, etc. Also covered are items not ordinarily thought of as fraught. But staples can bite into fingers and cause infection; rubber bands can take out an eye. This is to say nothing of even the most humble drugs: take 100 aspirins at one sitting,

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Caveat emptor is one the basic building blocks of just law. “Buyer beware” is the lynchpin of commerce. If the seller is responsible for flaws in the product (caveat vendidor), there will be precious few goods or services ever supplied. For who would want to grant any disgruntled consumer open sesame to engage in a lawsuit?

This includes products that have “danger” written all over them, at least potentially, such as knives, guns, scissors, hedge clippers, razor blades, automobiles, planes, etc. Also covered are items not ordinarily thought of as fraught. But staples can bite into fingers and cause infection; rubber bands can take out an eye. This is to say nothing of even the most humble drugs: take 100 aspirins at one sitting, and you will no longer be among the living. Meat can spoil. Even garden vegetables come replete with dirt, which can contain who knows what.

But these are mere utilitarian considerations, unworthy of consideration, almost, to those concerned with justice. There is also that little matter of deontology. It is plainly unjust to hold the seller responsible for what the buyer can do with a purchase, even if it falls apart from proper use. If we want to hold pistol and rifle manufacturers responsible for actions perpetrated by terrorists, that will end their production. If we want to be logically consistent we shall have to do the same with cars; no one would want to do that.

The charge levelled at Boeing is that it “cut corners” in the production of its 737 Max airplane, which resulted in the crash of  Lion Air flight 610, which killed 189 poor souls, and Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, in which 157 people perished.

That is to say, this Seattle based firm would always have spent more, subjected their aircraft to additional tests, etc. But this could be said of all producers, without exception. Every last one of them continually “cuts corners” in the sense that they did not spend an infinite amount of money trying to perfect what they offered for sale. Unless there was out and out fraud, which has not been charged let alone proven, it would be improper in the extreme to even think of levelling criminal charges against the executives of this company, as is sometimes bruited about (Source: Wall Street Journal, November 4, 2019, p. B1).

Boeing never guaranteed the complete safety of its products. They are all sold on an “as is” basis. It would be unfair in the extreme to hold them to a standard they did not voluntarily undertake.

No, if criminal charges are to be brought against anyone in this sad situation, not that they should be, the more justified target would be the Federal Aviation Administration. Their mandate, in contrast, was precisely to ensure safety. There were not merely a certification agency, attesting to propriety. Rather, they are a licensing bureau. It would have been illegal for the 737 Max to leave the ground with passengers aboard without their explicit imprimatur. The very existence of Boeing is now in question. The same, alas, cannot be said for the FAA. At the very least, this government agency ought to be disbanded, and replaced by a private competitive certification agency.

Milton Friedman eloquently made the case for this institutional arrangement in his book, Capitalism and Freedom. He did so for physicians. But the same arguments apply in the present case.

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