The Blog

News and stories from the campaign to reclaim individual responsibility and liberate Americans from bureaucracy and legal fear.


Recommended Reading: Sen. Angus King’s Testimony on Regulatory Reform

The national debate around regulation is too often restricted to one dimension: Is it over-reaching or overly lax?

In truth, the broad problem with regulation at all levels of government has less to do with its content than its method. As a rule, U.S. regulations are increasingly minute, narrow, and numerous. One consequence of this approach is that regulatory approval often balloons to absurd proportions, leading to hopelessly delayed projects and enormous expense for no good reason. We've seen this time and again with environmental review for infrastructure projects. Projects with minimal or negligible environmental impact can be caught up in years of investigation, reporting, and litigation, stifling progress and making long-term planning very difficult.

Fortunately, this issue is finally getting some attention in Congress. Senator Angus King (I-ME) recently summed up the idea in testimony at a hearing with the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs:

Regulation is an essential function of our government and is critical to protecting the things our society values, like the environment, public health, and safety. However, I am opposed to senseless regulation--those rules that do not serve a greater public purpose and are burdensome or impede our ability to compete with the rest of the world.

King told the Subcommittee on the Efficiency and Effectiveness of Federal Programs and the Federal Workforce that our current regulatory permitting process is hopelessly protracted and inefficient. Fixing the process is imperative for the sake of American infrastructure and the economy--and, as King says, it doesn't have to come at the expense of environmental protection:

It bears mentioning that tough standards and a timely process need not be at odds with one another. When I was governor of Maine, I used to say that I wanted Maine to have the toughest environmental standards in the country coupled with the country’s most predictable, user-friendly process. A project’s desirability should be based upon its merits, and its viability should not be determined by its opponents’ ability to delay the regulatory process.

The answer is not to weaken regulatory protection, but to clarify and simplify the process. Doing so would promote construction that is both responsible and timely, and it would increase our ability to repair our failing national infrastructure. King's solution:

Can we find a way to permit major projects at a cost that is not extraordinarily prohibitive and within a reasonable time frame without trampling on the legitimate rights of the people impacted? I believe we can. One of the first steps we could take is to address the issue of serial permitting--i.e., the phenomenon of uncoordinated and successive permitting approvals for a single project. When I was governor of Maine, we addressed this problem by creating a system of "one-stop regulatory shopping," which put the responsibility of issuing the final permit within one agency and required all the other agencies to coordinate and consult with the lead agency.

I believe a similar process could work at the federal level, and two members of this subcommittee, Senator Portman and Senator McCaskill, have introduced a bill that takes this very approach. The bill--S. 1397, the Federal Permitting Improvement Act of 2013--would institute some important changes to federal permitting procedures, and I am proud to announce my co-sponsorship of the bill today.

You can read Senator King's full testimony here. Common Good's issue brief on infrastructure and environmental review is here.

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John Micklethwait & Philip K. Howard on Commissions

The Economist's editor-in-chief, John Micklethwait, recently joined Philip Howard for a discussion around their two recent books: Micklethwait's The Fourth Revolution and Howard's The Rule of Nobody. Watch an excerpt of their conversation here:

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Simone Weil on Rules

From L'Enracinement by Simone Weil (1949), translated by Arthur Wills:

Rules should be sufficiently sensible and sufficiently straightforward so that any one who so desires and is blessed with average powers of application may be able to understand, on the one hand the useful ends they serve, and on the other hand the actual necessities which have brought about their institution. They should emanate from a source of authority which is not looked upon as strange or hostile, but loved as something belonging to those placed under its direction. They should be sufficiently stable, general and limited in number for the mind to be able to grasp them once and for all, and not find itself brought up against them every time a decision has to be made.

Common Good advocates regulatory overhaul not to weaken regulatory protections but to simplify, clarify, and streamline the way we achieve them. Check out our issue brief on regulatory simplification here.

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Philip Howard on “The Daily Show”

Philip appeared as Jon Stewart's guest on Monday, discussing his book The Rule of Nobody. Here's what Philip had to say about legal accretion:

The Constitution is an open framework of goals and principles. It's 10 pages long. The Volcker Rule is 980 pages. Law is supposed to be a framework within which people take responsibility. And then you hold—in a democratic process—people responsible for whether they succeed in running the agency properly, or whatever. But we've taken away the authority that goes with the responsibility, with literally tens—hundreds—of millions of words of law, so that it's become this vast vat of legal quicksand. It's thicker every year. It's a progressive disease. It's worse now than it was 20 years ago. It will be worse next year.

Watch the full, extended interview here.

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Recommended Reading: “Up With Authority” by Victor Lee Austin

by Benjamin Miller

Philip Howard’s new book, The Rule of Nobody, reveals the consequences of entrusting governance to broken bureaucracies and accumulated, often outdated law. A concern that often arises in this discussion is with granting officials authority to use their judgment. An individual can make a bad call, the thinking goes, in contrast to the security of a systematic, (ostensibly) impartial legal and regulatory system.

It’s a concern worth considering. In The Rule of Nobody, Philip argues that if you simply look at the real, scandalous consequences of the heavily bureaucratic approach we’ve accepted (from exploding budgets to banned lemonade stands), it’s clear real people are needed to exercise judgment and instill common sense. There’s a positive angle as well: individuals with the authority to use good judgment can take pride in their work and strive to solve problems from the federal level down to individual communities.

Victor Lee Austin is a priest (and a personal friend), and his book Up With Authority concerns, in part, church hierarchy and doctrine. But Austin’s project—as suggested by the book's subtitle, "Why we need authority to flourish as human beings"—at its heart concerns this positive side of authority as it appears, or should appear, across not only religious communities, but also society and politics.

It’s unhealthy, Austin argues, to see authority as a necessary evil—an unavoidable cost of maintaining order that ought to be minimized. Rather, authority enables us as individuals and groups to do things that would otherwise be impossible. Consider a symphony orchestra:

Decisions must be made about phrasings, about tempo, about volume and blend of various instruments. On each of these questions there are many wrong answers, but there is also seldom just one right answer. So decisions must be made. And they must be made amongst alternatives which have equal reason. So someone, an authority, in this case the conductor, has to determine how the music will be played. And the musicians must accept the conductor’s determinations and play as she directs, or else there will be no music.

Does a musician lose his freedom when he plays as his conductor directs? …Without the authority of a conductor, that symphony never could be heard.

Now of course a conductor will sometimes make a bad decision. A conductor might even at times exhibit malice or bias, and there must be avenues of recourse for musicians who are unjustly treated. But these risks don’t mean that an orchestra would be better off without a conductor.

Teachers, regulators, and business owners may also make bad decisions from time to time. For decades we've tried to minimize such mistakes by writing increasingly specific laws and regulations. Thus over time we've severely constrained the ability of people in positions of authority to exercise discretion. But the antidote to bad decisions isn't to prevent decisions from being made at all.

As Austin puts it: "[T]he reality of evil in the form of fallible authority is not an argument against authority." Yes, people in positions of authority will sometimes make mistakes, errors in judgment, even willful wrongs. But that doesn't mean we would be better off without people—even fallible people—in positions of authority. We entrust individuals with authority not because they are perfect but because we believe they can make necessary decisions.

Up With Authority is available on Amazon and elsewhere.

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Share Your Story With Common Good

Do you have a personal experience of bureaucracy run amok? Absurd regulatory or permitting processes? Are you a teacher or government official whose hands have been tied by nonsensical rules? Did an outdated law or crazy lawsuit get in the way of something you were trying to do?

We want to hear your story.

Philip Howard has been speaking around the country about cleaning out dead laws and fixing broken government. Every story that comes out about Americans struggling to use common sense in the face of idiotic laws and rules helps strengthen our case. Maybe you identify with Mark Zinan, who wrote today: "I have 34 years of work experience within the government and I can say that Howard is spot on." If so, tell us about it!

Please take a minute right now and email your story to

Do you have friends or family with their own stories to tell? Send them our way!

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What Broke Washington

This weekend the Washington Post published an op-ed by Philip K. Howard which presents a case for combating government dysfunction. The diagnosis:

I think we have it backward. Polarization is mainly a symptom, not the cause, of paralysis. Democracy has become powerless. Politicians who are impotent have no way to compete except by pointing fingers.

The main culprit, ironically, is law. Generations of lawmakers and regulators have written so much law, in such detail, that officials are barred from acting sensibly. Like sediment in the harbor, law has piled up until it is almost impossible—indeed, illegal—for officials to make choices needed for government to get where it needs to go.

And the solution?

Human responsibility should be restored as the operating philosophy for democracy. Only real people, not bureaucratic rules, can make adjustments to balance a budget, or be fair, or change priorities. Democracy cannot function unless identifiable people can make public choices and be accountable for the results.

Read the full piece here.

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A Bridge Too Far: The President Visits the Tappan Zee Bridge

by James R. Maxeiner

At 16,014 feet long, the Tappan Zee Bridge that crosses the Hudson River at Tarrytown is the longest bridge in New York and among the fifty longest bridges in the United States. Although only sixty years old, the bridge has long been in need of replacement. President Obama’s May 14 visit to the Bridge gives us hope for infrastructure approval reform in America even as it reminds us of how far the United States has to go and of how long we must bear the costs of our failures to coordinate approvals.

President Obama touted that through his personal intervention, approval of the replacement bridge had been fast-tracked and that the time required for approval had been cut to one-and-one-half years from the “normal” three to five years (or, he might have added, from the not uncommon decade or longer required for some infrastructure projects, such as the Bayonne Bridge). Fast-tracking does not mean slipshod review; it does mean coordinating and reducing required approvals.

The President announced plans to apply the same strategy to eleven other major infrastructure projects. But that’s not good enough. We need coordinated approval to be the norm for all projects. Three to five years should be the exception, not the rule. Moreover, we need a strategy that coordinates infrastructure projects, period. Why?

NPR this week reported why the Tappan Zee Bridge is so long—crossing the Hudson at one of the river’s widest points. Why not at a narrower point? Because where the river narrows, the bridge—and its lucrative tolls—would have fallen within the jurisdiction of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. Governor Thomas Dewey wanted those tolls instead to raise revenue for highway construction. So the bridge was built, at great expense, at one of the widest points on the Hudson. And this political decision from sixty years ago predetermined where the new bridge is today being built: where the old bridge is, at the river’s widest point.

Governor Dewey’s political decision reminds us that while laws can anticipate the future, they cannot do so perfectly, and need to be updated periodically. In 1921 New York,  New Jersey, and federal laws created the Port Authority to facilitate cooperation between the two states, but they did not fully anticipate the growth of the New York City area over the next thirty years. In 1956, regional highway infrastructure cooperation became national policy when Congress created the Interstate Highway System. But the "bridge too far" had been finished the year before, too late to be moved.

President Obama’a visit reminds us that we should not wait another sixty years for a general coordination of infrastructure approvals.

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Press Release: President Obama’s Plan To Streamline Infrastructure Reviews

NEW YORK, May 15, 2014 /PRNewswire/ -- Common Good, the nonpartisan government reform coalition that has been championing reform of the nation's infrastructure review process, today praised President Obama's newly announced effort to streamline the infrastructure permitting process but said it will "carefully watch the details of the White House plan" as it develops.

Philip K. Howard, Founder and Chair of Common Good, said that the organization supports major elements of the President's plan, such as synchronizing agency reviews, shortening decision making times, allowing the public to track the status of permitting reviews, and creating an interagency infrastructure permitting authority to find ways to streamline the process.

"The President's plan embraces many ideas that Common Good has been actively promoting," Howard said. "It's a big step forward. But the devil, as always, is in the details. We want to make sure special interests don't hijack the plan to protect a failed status quo. We need real reform, not window-dressing."

A nationwide survey of U.S. voters conducted by the nonpartisan Clarus Research Group and commissioned by Common Good last November found that a majority of voters (61%) believe it would be possible to cut the amount of time it takes to do environmental reviews of infrastructure projects without harming the environment. A majority of every partisan group – Democrats (52%), Republicans (72%), and independents (59%) – agreed.

"Modern infrastructure is essential to America's way of life and a growing economy, and so are strong environmental protections. But when government can't even rebuild an unsafe bridge without years of unnecessary delay, something is terribly wrong," said Howard. "The system must be changed."

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“A Philosophy of Fear” by Lars Svendsen

by Benjamin Miller

Why is America sidled with such a tangle of overly complex laws and regulations? One reason is certainly a ubiquitous fear, or risk aversion, that drives legislators and rulemakers to try and address every conceivable danger.

That’s why, for example, people are detained at the Canadian border for carrying Kinder chocolate eggs—which evidently present a choking hazard because of the toy inside. It’s also why doctors struggle to deliver care efficiently and why soup kitchens are targeted for serving home-made food.

Where does this overwrought fear come from, and how can we combat it? Those questions lie at the heart of the short philosophical and sociological book A Philosophy of Fear by Lars Svendsen. The book’s object, as Svendsen puts it, is "an attack on the tendency to consider practically all phenomena from a perspective of fear." It’s certainly worth turning off the local news for a minute to thumb through.

We haven’t always lived with such omnipresent paranoia. Svendsen notes that the incidence of fear-related language in the media has increased dramatically in recent decades. Similarly, individuals’ concern over risks like crime and traffic accidents has increased even as the actual danger has fallen. Safety has even become a theme in design, fashion, and architecture, with trending bullet-proof couture and an exhibition of safety devices at the Museum of Modern Art. All of this despite the fact that, "All statistics indicate that we in the West in particular are living in the most secure societies that have ever existed, where the dangers are fewer and our chance of dealing with them greater than ever before."

Unfortunately, fear can be as contagious as an urban legend, spreading from one person to the next until the original basis is forgotten. And, as Svendsen observes, we have strong incentives to obsess over threats while dismissing positive news: “We seem to be culturally disposed to assume negative consequences, and we have a fluid fear that is chronically hunting for new objects it can link up with. Such a frightening world is not a happy one.” News media exploit this disposition—if it bleeds, it leads—while companies use it to sell products and politicians to consolidate support.

Fighting what seems to be a deeply rooted tendency toward fear is an uphill struggle, but Svendsen calls for hope and optimism to displace the fear that "ruins much of what gives meaning to our lives":

Mass media, authorities and pressure groups must be asked to behave more responsibly when it comes to fear—not to over-dramatize dangers, no matter how ‘good’ their intentions. Health authorities ought not to use exaggerated scare propaganda in order to combat smoking and drugs, for example. The mass media ought not to use banner headlines to warn people of the danger of eating this or that, if these dangers are in fact infinitesimal. Pressure groups ought not to exaggerate a present danger just to get media coverage.

Here’s to hoping—and reminding ourselves to focus on real sources of meaning, not imagined threats against them.

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