Review of “The Death of Common Sense” by Philip K. Howard

The subtitle of this book is: "how law is suffocating America." It should probably be: "how regulation is suffocating America."

In general, Howard does a fine job of recognizing many symptoms of USG’s disease. He misses the underlying disease though.

Most of the book describes absurd regulatory requirements – the sort that been well chronicled elsewhere. It’s impossible to build a new road, for example, because environmentalist requirements can delay the process indefinitely.

These sorts of things are worth recording and analyzing. The hard part though is figuring out how we got here.

Howard (much too) briefly describes the rise of the bureaucratic state. In the first third of the 20th Century, the constitution of the American government changed fundamentally. Power given to bureaucrats surged. Initially, bureaucrats were free to exercise their own judgment, but they’ve since been hamstrung by vast complex rules that basically eliminate discretion. These rules, in Howard’s telling, make good government impossible. In order to really govern, there must be some scope for discretion and judgment.

This is all well and good, however discretion without responsibility is not a recipe for good government. Howard doesn’t stop to consider where the binding, inflexible rules that he doesn’t like came from. They were largely created by . . . bureaucrats who don’t want to exercise their own discretion. Governing is hard. Why do it, if you don’t get the glory of success? Do you really want someone to do it if the consequences of failure are nothing?

The book is ultimately a call for leadership, yet Howard’s view of leadership is a bureaucratic one. Seeking responsible leadership from a massive unaccountable bureaucracy that is insulated from the upsides of providing good government and the downsides of providing bad government is a waste of everyone’s time.

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5 Responses to Review of “The Death of Common Sense” by Philip K. Howard

  1. nydwracu says:

    It’s impossible to build a new road, for example, because environmentalist requirements can delay the process indefinitely.

    Exactly. How many decades did it take to get the Intercounty Connector approved?

  2. PA says:

    Well, more often than not obstacles to development are a good thing. Ceaucescu and Stalin had a free hand with useless made-mobilization public works projects that destroyed local social ecologies. And in America, we had Urban Renewal.

  3. Simon Grey says:

    Weird. When I read the book, I came to the conclusion that he was generally calling for the elimination of the bureaucracy so that people can have more flexibility to make decisions for themselves. That bureaucrats should have more flexibility and responsibility seemed secondary.

    It does make sense that bureaucrats would hamstring themselves. There’s nothing like absolving yourself of responsibility by appealing to rules of vague origins, then saying the problem is beyond your control.

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