Fixing broken government — Philip K. Howard at the Long Now

Philip K. Howard has been active in public affairs his entire adult life and has advised national political leaders on legal and regulatory reform for fifteen years. Philip writes periodically for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times

Philip K. Howard gives his diagnosis and prescription for fixing government in the US at the Long Now.

People feel powerless in the face of government. The reason is simple: they are.

It isn’t just citizens. Govnt employees are equally shackled. We as a nation have become strangled in a dense and growing jungle of regulatory constraints.

The root is that we have changed the nature of law. Instead of laying down timeless general principles it now specifies exactly what actions are or are not allowed. Individual discretion has been removed from the system. Worse, the laws don’t sunset, they just continue to pile up on top of each other. Simple example: OSHA regs specify that a hammer used in a business must meet certain standards which may make sense for a construction site, but not for a guy in an office who puts up a picture once a year (and got fined for not having the right kind of hammer).

The solution is not the end of regulation. Regulation is needed to manage our increasingly complex society. Government is necessary to safeguard the common good, especially in an increasingly interdependent yet anonymous society.

The needed change is to once again allow human judgment to determine appropriate action.

The proposed change is threefold, which each change requiring the sacrifice of a sacred cow.

  1. Spring cleaning of the law, or at a minimum any law with budgetary implications. Force legislators to review all existing law, removing that which no longer makes sense, and revising that which does according to principles 2 and 3, below.
  2. Simplification. Law must be comprehensible to laypersons, not just specialists. The purpose of law is to set goals and objectives, not to specify exact procedures. For example, a workplace safety law could require just that equipment be appropriate to the job and in concordance with industry norms.
  3. Accountability. The counterpart to relying on human judgment is to make the person who makes the call accountable. If they consistently make bad judgment, they loose their job. If they make really bad judgments, they go to jail.

This is difficult. Special interests will fight to keep regulations complex and written as they are. Accountability requires trust, and neither political party is willing to extend this to the other.

But such changes have happened before. The progressive era saw the end of laizer faire capitalism as people realized that business left to itself quickly becomes exploitative (child labor, etc). The New Deal saw the creation of a safety net because our farmers were starving due to forces well outside of their control. The rights movement resulted in sweeping changes to society.

Normally these movements run for a long time, building up momentum, but with little “outward” signs of progress. Then, when they are ripe, they spring up “overnight” with incredible force. The change happens quickly.

He also notes that major legal reforms, such as he proposes, are universally followed by massive increases in economic growth.

One place to start would be reforming public schools. Give power to the principles and teachers to do what they think is best in a given situation.

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Posted on July 18, 2012, in US and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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