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

Blog — Government

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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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The Rule of Nobody, reveals the consequences of entrusting governance to broken bureaucracies and accumulated, often outdated law.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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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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Good Government vs Less Government

Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard

“The problem with Howard’s ideas is that they rest on the naive fiction that there can be such a thing as ‘good government.’ In fact, the best we can hope for is less government.” So ends the critical review by Logan Albright of my new book The Rule of Nobody for the Von Mises Institute.     

Just get rid of government wherever possible. That’s the simple narrative that appeals to many conservatives. Government is indeed filled with obsolete programs, such as New Deal farm subsidies. It also smothers freedom with many overbearing regulations. Shutting down children’s lemonade stands for want of a vendor’s license, for example, is absurd. Moreover, it is hard to find any government program that isn’t broken in large part. The Social Security disability program, for example, is rife with abuse. Social Security itself, perhaps the most efficient social program, is on the road to insolvency. 

But the orthodoxy of smaller government doesn’t deal with the failures of what remains. Moreover, government has gotten ever bigger, even under Republican presidents, as the country confronted new challenges such as terrorism. Most citizens probably would vote for government oversight for clean restaurants, caring nursing homes, and airworthy planes.  

Instead of wholesale attacks on government, philosopher Roger Scruton argues in a thoughtful essay in the new issue of First Things ("The Good of Government"), conservatives should be more discriminating about where government is needed to enhance the culture of a free society. 

The important question—addressed by neither conservatives nor liberals—is why government works so badly. Environmental review shouldn’t take a decade. Starting a small business shouldn’t require permits from a dozen different agencies. Principals ought to be able to terminate ineffective teachers.   

Government is organized to fail, I argue in my new book, because nobody in modern government is free to make sensible choices. No one can say, "Oh there’s no need for kids to have a vendor’s license for a lemonade stand." The president lacks the authority to expedite rebuilding projects. The teacher can’t dismiss a disruptive student without risking a drawn-out legal proceeding. Everyone is shackled to detailed rulebooks. Government is run not by accountable officials, but by humans who are told to act like legal robots. Law has become central planning. It is hardly surprising that every encounter with government is an exercise in frustration when nobody—not the regulator, not the citizen—is free to adapt to the circumstances.  

A certain conservative orthodoxy, ironically, joins with liberals in demanding a central planning vision for public choices. Better legal shackles than a public official running amok. What if the official is a tyrant? That’s why the Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek concluded in his early writings that "government in all its actions…[should be] bound by rules announced and fixed beforehand."

There are many flaws in this assumption that detailed law enhances freedom. The current system of several billion words of law does not protect against a regulatory tyrant. No one, not even large companies with hundreds of lawyers, can conceivably comply with volumes of detailed rules. When noncompliance is unavoidable, officials have carte blanche to be tyrants: "Sorry, you don’t comply with Rule 256 (v)(3) (iii)."

Moreover, our options for a government operating philosophy are not limited to 1) mindless rules or 2) anything goes. The Rule of Law can constrain officials with goals and general principles, while still providing flexibility to act sensibly. Our most important principles of law—say the "reasonable person" standard—always require application by reference to social norms. But, to some conservatives, the idea of an official having discretion—even limited discretion—is like holding a cross in front of Dracula. 

Here’s how Mr. Albright criticized my vision of law that leaves room for human judgment: 

"Howard suggests that an exhaustive list of food standards for nursing home could be simplified to a simple requirement that they provide ‘nutritious meals.’ This sounds like common sense, but what exactly is a nutritious meal? If the inspector happens to be a vegetarian, what is to stop them for forbidding red meat, when the residents and their families were perfectly happy to have it? Discretion allows the biases of individuals to creep into enforcement, and to pretend that anyone is capable of acting wholly without bias is to deny human nature."

Is requiring "nutritious meals" really an invitation to abuse? There are accepted guidelines for nutritious meals from professional medical societies. No inspector ever has unfettered discretion to demand whatever he wants. If an inspector demanded vegan meals for everyone, or caviar at dinner, the nursing home operator could just say no. To enforce his order the inspector would have to go to court. Who do you think would win?  

General principles of law are not invitations to tyranny but the opposite. "Standards that capture lay intuitions about right behavior," Judge Richard Posner notes, "may produce greater legal certainty than a network of precise…rules."

Principles are enforced according to current social norms. True, they leave room for argument. But so, usually, do precise rules. "Clear law" (with a few exceptions like speed limits and age eligibility) is generally a myth. Ambiguity is inherent in most language. With general principles, the argument focuses on right and wrong: Is this food nutritious? With precise rules, the argument focuses on parsing a legal language. The argument is no longer tethered to lay intuitions of what’s right.   

I know conservatives would prefer to have no regulation. But will de-regulated nursing homes pass muster in a democracy? Over 50% of nursing home residents suffer from dementia. Can we really rely on market forces? Mr. Albright may not trust government regulators, but I suspect most Americans wouldn’t trust nursing home operators either.    

How does it work out when rules permit human judgment? Airplanes are certified to be "airworthy" by FAA experts without detailed guidelines on how many rivets, etc. Would you prefer that market forces decide which planes can fly safely? Or, in the alternative, would you prefer a regime of thousands of rules where plane manufacturers can go to court, over the objections of FAA experts, and get a judge to decide that the plane complies with rules? Personally, I’d like the FAA experts to make the final decision. 

Nursing homes in America, notwithstanding a thousand rules, are generally awful. How do we make them better? Mr. Albright says deregulate. I suggest radically simplified standards for oversight. In the late 1980s Australia abandoned its detailed nursing home rule book and replaced it with 31 general principles that focused on goals, such as requiring "a homelike setting," and respecting the "dignity of the residents." Within a year, nursing homes were materially better, and they’ve continued to improve over time. The reason? People are empowered to do what they think is right, not act like mindless robots.

Mr. Albright places his faith mainly in markets:

"The market is a sorting mechanism that keeps these people in line in order to preserve their profits, but government is not subject to market pressures. As such, the problem is more fundamental than too much or too little rigidity. Government is fundamentally corrupt, as it rests entirely on the premise of coercive power. Rather than tinkering with the levels of discretionary authority officials possess, we would do better to limit their power."

I too believe in the effectiveness of markets. But markets are not always good at making moral judgments, or protecting against abuse. That’s why law is essential to freedom.

Just as unfettered government authority is an evil, so too an unfettered market can lead to evil. The trick is to have the right tension between government and markets, and to have accountability over government. Democracy too should be a kind of market, with people voting their preferences. Instead democracy is out of anyone’s control. It doesn’t matter much whom we elect, because the law tells everyone what to do. By clinging to the orthodoxy of detailed law, we have unwittingly removed accountability from democracy while trying to guarantee against its abuse. 

At the end of his life, Hayek recanted his demand for mechanical government, saying that he had reconsidered "the supposed greater certainty [when]…all rules of law have been laid down in written and codified form." Law works better, he concluded, when decisions are made "by generally held views of what is just."

Human initiative, not rules, make the world go round. This is what conservatives believe, and they are right. Then why don’t they see that the same truism applies to government? Government will never get fixed until humans within it are allowed the flexibility that goes along with taking responsibility. Only then can democracy hold them accountable for the many failings of modern government.

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Amending the Constitution: A Good Idea Whose Time Has Come

by James R. Maxeiner

Philip K. Howard isn’t alone in proposing amendments to the United States Constitution. Shortly following the publication of The Rule of Nobody, which includes five proposed amendments constituting a "Bill of Responsibilities," one retired Supreme Court justice (John Paul Stevens) and two sitting Supreme Courts justices (Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg) themselves called for amending the Constitution. Justice Stevens proposes six amendments in a new book, Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution (April 22). The two sitting justices made their proposals in a public conversation at the National Press Club on April 17.

The U.S. Constitution is more difficult to amend than most. But Philip and the three Supreme Court Justices see what Thomas Jefferson saw. No sooner had he finished writing the Declaration of Independence than he turned to a complete "revisal" of Virginia laws. Inscribed on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington are his words: "laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. [They must] keep pace with the times."

One way for law to keep pace with changing times can be common law case development—judges determine appropriate and sensible procedures over time. But even the most fervent of believers in common law case development recognize that there are limits to its capabilities. Serious structural reforms are sometimes needed—and such reforms demand constitutional amendments. Common law judges do not have political legitimacy or the knowledge needed to rearrange government or to prescribe rules for governing well.

The amendments proposed by Philip and the Justices share a common theme of promoting functional government. Philip’s "Bill of Responsibilities" aims at restoring judgment and common sense to government roles. Four of Justice Stevens’s six proposals address government mechanics (like gerrymandering and campaign finance). Justice Scalia has the simplest and perhaps most direct proposal of them all in the end: amending the Constitution’s process for making amendments.

In this, the Constitution’s 225th year, amending it is a good idea whose time has come.

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Trust the Government?

Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard

Last week George Will wrote a powerful column on how "The Heavy Hand of the IRS Seizes Innocent Americans’ Assets." The episode involved an immigrant who owned a grocery store in Fraser, Michigan. Because about a third of its sales are in cash, the owner regularly deposited cash in a bank across the street. There is an anti-money laundering law, aimed at drug dealers, which requires banks to report cash deposits of more than $10,000, and also prohibits people from structuring deposits to avoid the law. The grocery store had been audited by the IRS several times in recent years, without any finding of suspicious activity. Last year, under broad power to catch criminals, the IRS without notice seized the grocery store’s bank account. 

The story, most would agree, is an outrage. What went wrong here? George Will attacks both the law—the "guilty-until-proven-innocent" forfeiture power—and the IRS agents who decided that a grocery store making regular cash deposits was a criminal enterprise. However much Americans distrust government, Will concludes, that "distrust of government is insufficient."

Let’s unpack the story, and see if there is a moral for how government should work. I’m not an expert on money laundering, but can readily imagine why in certain circumstances the government should be able to freeze assets. Otherwise, with the press of a button, criminal resources can be transferred out of the country.   

But that’s obviously not the situation here: the supposed vehicle for crime, a local grocery store, is going nowhere. It is perpetually receiving cash for cans of Coke and quarts of milk. The IRS had no need to seize deposits in order to avoid the owner fleeing the jurisdiction with ill-gotten gains. 

The main thing that went wrong here is a failure of human judgment. The IRS agents abused their power. What’s the solution? In any sensibly-organized democratic structure, after an investigation, the responsible IRS officials should be sanctioned or fired. 

But civil servants can’t be held accountable. The so-called "merit system" has evolved to become an "anti-merit system." Public employees can’t be fired, or even sanctioned, without years of legal proceedings. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a civil servant losing his job because he abused his power over citizens. It may be that the forfeiture law needs to include a stronger principle that it should be used only when there is reason to believe that targets and their assets will flee the jurisdiction. But that principle still requires human judgment. No set of words in law can ever remove the need for humans to act appropriately.  

Personal accountability should be the operating mechanism for any organization. Without it, culture soon degrades. Government today is a tangled jungle of incoherent law and regulation because we look to words, rather than personal responsibility, as the way of safeguarding against error. My conclusion is this: the main flaw in modern government is not that officials have too much power, but that they can’t be accountable when they abuse it.

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Bill of Responsibilities: Proposed Amendments to the Constitution

An excerpt from The Rule of Nobody by Philip K. Howard.

There have been twenty-seven amendments to the Constitution. The most recent, the Twenty-Seventh Amendment, proposed in 1789 and ratified in 1992, prohibits changing congressional pay raises from taking effect until "an election of representatives shall have intervened." One has been repealed (the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages, was repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment).

Under Article V of the Constitution, the process for amending the Constitution basically requires two steps: First, the amendment must be proposed either by a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress, or by a constitutional convention called by legislatures of two-thirds of the states. Second, the amendment must be ratified either, at the choice of Congress, by legislatures of three-fourths of the states or by constitutional conventions in three-fourths of the states.

To the existing twenty-seven amendments, I propose adding five new amendments that would become the Bill of Responsibilities. These amendments could be acted upon together or separately.

1. The Twenty-Eighth Amendment would impose a mandatory sunset so that all laws and programs with budgetary impact would automatically expire every fifteen years, and could not be reenacted without new findings and a report from an independent commission. This amendment would not generally apply to criminal laws, for example, but would encompass most regulatory and social welfare programs. This amendment also would give Congress the authority to invalidate regulations that were promulgated pursuant to a legislative mandate—in effect, putting Congress on an equal footing with the executive branch, which currently has unilateral authority, subject to judicial review, to repeal regulations:

Amendment XXVIII: No statute or regulation requiring expenditure of public or private resources (other than to oversee legal compliance or enforcement), shall be in force for longer than fifteen years. Congress may reenact such a law only after finding that it continues to serve the public interest and does not unnecessarily conflict or interfere with other priorities. Before making its determinations, Congress shall consider recommendations by an independent commission on whether and how to amend any such statute or program. At any time, Congress by majority vote of each house shall have the power to invalidate any regulation promulgated under a statutory delegation, without presentment to the President.

2. The Twenty-Ninth Amendment would restore to the President authority to manage the executive branch more actively by issuing executive orders, subject to congressional override, to reorganize agencies, veto specific items in proposed budgets, and impound money to avoid waste. Today the executive branch is mired in obsolete congressional mandates, maintained by congressional inertia rather than deliberate choices. This amendment would give the President authority to push back while still leaving the ultimate judgment with Congress:

Amendment XXIX: By executive order, subject to being overridden by majority vote in each house, the President may: reorganize executive agencies and departments; veto line items in proposed budgets; refuse to spend budgeted funds for any program in order to avoid waste or inefficiency; and undertake to accomplish statutory goals, consistent with statutory principles, by means other than those set forth in the statute or implementing regulations.

3. The Thirtieth Amendment would restore to the President authority to manage and terminate government personnel, subject only to budgetary guidelines and a neutral hiring protocol to avoid handing out jobs as “spoils.” This amendment is intended to return civil service to its roots as a “merit system,” not a sinecure of permanent employment. It is not possible to restore responsibility to government, giving officials flexibility to act sensibly and morally, unless they can be accountable. Historians of public service believe that modern civil service is neither effective nor responsive—an unrecognizable mutation of the original progressive vision for good government. Ossified civil service has become a symbol of bad government, and must be abandoned:

Amendment XXX: The President shall have authority over personnel decisions in the executive branch, including authority to terminate public employees, within budgetary guidelines and neutral hiring protocols established by Congress.

4. The Thirty-First Amendment would restore reliability to American civil justice by requiring judges to safeguard reasonable boundaries of who can sue for what. Lawsuits today are a tool for extortion and delay, with corrosive effects on free interaction throughout society. The first principle of fair justice is that like cases should be decided alike. That core precept requires judges to assert values of reasonableness, as a matter of law, to bring consistency to what has become a legal casino:

Amendment XXXI: Notwithstanding the provisions of the Seventh Amendment and any state law or constitution, in lawsuits that may impede the conduct of government, or that may diminish general freedoms of persons in society, judges shall make rulings of law drawing boundaries of reasonable claims and defenses, and dismiss claims and defenses falling outside those boundaries. No person shall be required to respond to any lawsuit unless a judge shall determine that the claims are reasonable and there are reasonable allegations to support them against each person.

5. The Thirty-Second Amendment would create an independent Council of Citizens to evaluate and issue reports on the workings of government. Government has acquired a life of its own, disconnected from the needs of society, but there is little focused objection because government maintains a monopoly on public discourse. This advisory council would be a locus of moral authority, untarnished by political ambition or monetary self-interest. Democracy needs citizen supervision:

Amendment XXXII: A Council of Citizens shall be established as an advisory oversight body on the workings of government. The council shall consist of nine members, Appendix: Bill of Responsibilities 183 chosen by and from a Nominating Council composed of two nominees by each governor of a state. The members shall each have a term of five years, and may be renominated and chosen to serve additional terms. The council shall have no mandatory duties other than to nominate independent commissions to advise Congress on the rewriting of laws. Congress shall provide funding adequate to support staff and shall provide an honorarium to each member of the council in an amount equal to the salary of a member of Congress.

More excerpts from The Rule of Nobody are available here.

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The U.S. “Is Losing Its Soul”

In a new review of The Rule of Nobody, Jesse Singal of the Boston Globe says that Philip Howard presents a "convincing, provocative argument… Howard’s clear, levelheaded descriptions of how things are done elsewhere…proves his point: We really need to figure out a better way to do operate, lest the country grind to a halt."

Singal writes:

In 2011, writes Philip K. Howard, "firefighters stood on the beach in Alameda, California, and watched a suicidal man flailing in water 150 yards offshore."

None of them moved to rescue the man, because, as a result of budget cuts, they hadn’t been recertified in “land-based water rescues,” and therefore certain “legal liabilit[ies]” could arise. So they watched him struggle for an hour, and then he drowned.

This tragic incident highlights the key points in Howard’s convincing, provocative argument. The United States, he writes, "is losing its soul. Instead of creating legal structures that support our values, Americans are abandoning our values in deference to the bureaucratic structures."

Click here to read the full review.

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