BY MATTHEW HUTCHINS
To see a video of Ralph Nader’s remarks, click the below link and open the file with Quicktime.
Would the United States become a police state if there were another major terrorist attack on our country? Why did law professors, deans, and lawyers not stand up to the constitutional violations of Bush and Cheney? What determines the curriculum of Harvard Law School? Why do contracts professors minimize the importance of adhesion contracts, when they constitute 99% of what we sign? Is it true that 80% of the lawyers represent 20% of the people?
In his visit to HLS on Friday, October 30th, Ralph Nader ‘58, implored students in the audience to ask these questions of the government and the school’s administration. “You don’t have any idea how you are respected when you speak out collectively as law students,” he said. Nader began his career as a public advocate while a student at HLS half a century ago. His articles in the Harvard Law Record examined America’s corporations and political parties with a critical eye, and when he graduated he drew on his work at the Record to write the book Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), which brought to light the need for federal regulation of auto industry titans like General Motors. The result was the enactment of mandatory safety standards that have saved millions of lives and improved vehicle efficiency. “That came out of the Harvard Law Record. It would not have come out of the Harvard Law Review,” said Nader.
Over his decades of public advocacy, Nader has been instrumental in the creation of numerous public interest organizations and the enactment of several landmark pieces of legislation aimed at protecting citizens, including the Safe Drinking Water Act and the authorizing statutes for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. More recently, he has waged three major, national campaigns for President, in 2000 as the candidate of the Green party and in 2004 and 2008 as an independent candidate.
Author of over thirty books, Nader’s latest work is a “practical utopian fiction” that lays out a blueprint of how to change America from both the top-down and bottom-up. Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! begins with an incensed Warren Buffett responding to the Hurricane Katrina disaster by organizing an impromptu relief effort to assist New Orleans survivors. Inspired by his ability to help the most vulnerable through forceful application of his wealth, Buffett organizes a convention of fellow billionaires and media moguls to devise a plan for reversing the degeneration of American civil society. “The missing element of the equation for public interest and progressive groups is that they don’t have enough money,” said Nader. The book, Nader’s “answer to Ayn Rand”, chronicles the Super-Rich crusaders’ quest as they mobilize community organizers in every congressional district around the country and push against the corporate control of Washington politics. “The conversation is very acute, very provocative, fresh, but I didn’t want any magic wands. The detail is to show it could happen if the money is there, because the talent is out there. The solutions are on the shelf.”
But Nader expressed serious concern about the ability of the next generation of HLS alumni to apply their efforts and their imaginations to the problems facing our country. “Without elevated imagination, we don’t go anywhere. If your imagination is not elevated, you don’t have a vision of possibilities. If you don’t have vision of possibilities, you don’t have reach. If you don’t have reach, you don’t have a grasp. And let’s face it, we grow up in cultures that set our imaginations at a certain level.” During his time at HLS, Nader found the culture of the school to be an oppressive series of measures designed to cow students into submission to a legal order dominated by corporate firms. “I gravitated to the Harvard Law Record because that was the law writ large. That’s where I found elbow room to ask the questions of justice and injustice, and what are lawyers for, and what’s the difference between lawyers and attorneys?” Whereas attorneys are the partisan advocates of their clients’ interests, Nader believes a lawyer is someone who asks the bigger questions about justice and the purposes of the law. The process of inquiry, said Nader, should begin for law students while they still have the freedom to write about subjects they would enjoy pursuing after graduation. “It’s very important for law students, while you are free to do it, before you are out working 100 hours a week in these pressure cooker, corporate law factories, to raise that imagination level.”
Beyond just imagination, Nader urged students to take up the tools of normative analysis with zeal and work for justice in the relationship of individuals to institutions. “If you don’t have fire in your belly, it doesn’t matter what you do in the area of reform.” Nader pointed to Rosa Parks and the sit-down strikers who formed the United Auto Workers as examples of the power of having resolute conviction in demanding justice from society.
Students should not, he said, adopt the skepticism of the academy with respect to normative thinking, because conceptions of justice and injustice are questions that require examination through normative dimensions. Analytical champions like 7th Circuit Judge Richard Posner ’62 are, according to Nader, empirically starved and intellectually arrogant.
Quoting from an article he wrote for The New Republic in 1968, Nader characterized his time in law school as “a process of engineering the law student into corridor thinking and largely non-normative evaluation. It was a three-year excursus into legal minutiae embraced by wooden logic and impervious to what Oliver Wendell Holmes once called the felt necessities of our times.”
Another pitfall of academic myopia, Nader said, is the fetishistic reverence of pure intellect. But the fallacy of this blind adherence to intellectual ability lies in its failure to yield actual improvements in the lives of individuals. “Would you rather have someone who is dim but right or smart but wrong?” he asked. Nader pointed to former President of Harvard University Larry Summers, who was instrumental in the deregulation of the financial industry through the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, as the epitome of the fetish of brilliance. Financial deregulation led to the formation of a $600 trillion dollar derivatives industry and the excessive risk-taking that weakened the Harvard endowment and imperiled mega-banks like Citigroup. But despite his role in financial deregulation, Summers has risen higher yet, now serving as President Barack Obama ’91’s chief economic advisor.
Above all, Nader expressed criticism of the steady degradation of the status of individuals compared to institutions in America and the decay of constitutional order. He pointed to the power that corporations have gained through adhesion contracts, tort reform, unfettered lobbying power, opaque government procurement contracts, and trillions of dollars in bailouts to Wall Street firms. Equally distressing to Nader is the inability of citizens to challenge abuses of the constitution by actors at the highest level of government. He said that the Obama administration had only contributed to the problem by failing to open a full inquiry into the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, waterboarding interrogation, and unchecked snooping by the NSA and CIA. “Every time there is a major violation pattern and it is not called out and enforced on, it becomes part of the fiber of a deteriorating system which will eventually end up with death squads and rampant homicidal activity.”
Nader expressed doubt that President Obama will be successful in deali
ng with all the challenges his administration faces. “His problem is he’s conflict averse, especially when it comes to corporate power and being accused of benig soft on terror. He’s been dealt a tough hand . . . However he has a lot of competent people working under him.” Among the most daunting tasks at hand are the reversal of the damage done to the Department of Justice under Attorneys General John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzalez ’82 and the extrication of the United States from the Afghan quagmire. “We should have never toppled the whole regime . . . We will never defeat [the Taliban] because they view us as a foreign occupation force.”
With a grim demeanor of stark gravity, Nader encouraged law students to remember the words of Daniel Webster: that “justice is the greatest work of man on Earth.” He cautioned the idealistic youth to appreciate the difficulty of maintaining resolve in the fight for social justice. “The system devours you all, equal opportunity, unless you have a strong-willed determination to make a difference and can challenge the invisible, institutional chains that wrap around you.”