The Blog

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

Blog — Society

Center on Capitalism and Society’s 14th Annual Conference

Along with the Roosevelt Institute, Common Good will co-host Columbia University’s Center on Capitalism and Society’s 14th Annual Conference on November 18, 2016. Titled “Agency, Prospering, Progress, and the Working Class,” the event will take place at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

The Center is directed by Nobel laureate and Common Good advisory board member Edmund Phelps. Common Good’s Philip Howard serves on the Center’s advisory board.

Click here for more information on the event.

Comment ›

Philip Howard Leads Roundtable on Regulation for Inc. Magazine

In March, Inc. magazine organized a roundtable discussion with small business owners about the regulations that affect their businesses. Common Good’s Philip Howard moderated the conversation, which is summarized by Inc.'s Editor-at-Large Leigh Buchanan in their July/August issue.

One of the participants, who heads a winery, discussed a federal rule that limits where he can sell his product if it contains grapes from “‘noncontiguous’ states.” Inc. relates:

This rule exists, suggests Howard, to protect vested interests. But, he adds, 'it looks like [rules governing the wine industry] exist only because someone made them up that way 80 years ago.'

That could be said of tens of thousands of governmental rules that appear arbitrary, irrational, or out­dated. Unfortunately, the list is only growing. Roughly 3,400 federal regulations were issued in 2015, 545 of which directly affect small business, according to the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The Office of Management and Budget reports that another 3,000 are on course for this year. Entrepreneurs are, or soon could be, grappling with new federal and state rules related to—among other things—overtime, sick leave, health care reporting, employee retirement plans, independent contractors, lead dust in commercial buildings, and website accessibility for the disabled. The most recent academic paper on the topic released by the Small Business Administration's Office of Public Advocacy—in 2010—reports that per-employee regulatory costs for small companies are 36 percent higher than those for large ones.

The problem is not regulation per se, the roundtable participants agreed—entrepreneurs “want to do the right thing for their employees, their customers, and the environment,” Inc. writes—but that the growing mass of—oftentimes obsolete, conflicting—regulations prevent growth with no accompanying benefit:

Every time your business is prevented from doing something or you choose not to do something because the government makes it difficult, there is an opportunity cost. According to the Paychex survey, concern over regulation had dissuaded 39 percent of respondents from entering a new market, 36 percent from introducing a new product, and 25 percent from starting a particular kind of business.

The Inc. article ends by offering five reform proposals to “build[] a smarter, less restrictive regulatory system”—these include: allowing new business “breathing room” in addressing minor regulations; treating “disrupters” differently than established industries; regulating by principles as opposed to precise specifics; cleaning out obsolete regulations; and empowering regulators to use their common sense.

Common Good has long-advocated for these last three ideas. On the proposal to allow regulators to exercise discretion, Inc. writes:

‘America is run by dead people,’ says Howard. ‘The people who wrote those rules are dead, so you can't argue with them or hold them accountable.’ Some regulations date back 60 years, so it is vital that live human beings have the power to interpret them, says Howard. In general, those who enforce the rules should be encouraged to exercise their best judgment depending on the situation. All too often, regulators and inspectors are conditioned to say no, because that’s the safe bet.

Click here to read the Inc. article in full.

Comment ›

Philip Howard Appears on “A Closer Look with Arthur Levitt”

Philip Howard recently sat down for an extensive conversation with Arthur Levitt on his Bloomberg Radio program “A Closer Look with Arthur Levitt.” Topics of discussion with the former SEC chairman included the civil service system, environmental review, education, and presidential authority.

Click here to listen to the interview.

Comment ›

Humans vs. Bureaucracy

The following statement by Philip K. Howard and Edmund Phelps was presented in conjunction with Common Good's recent joint forum with Columbia University’s Center on Capitalism and Society, "The Future of the Individual." In the coming days we will post videos and summaries from the forum. This joint statement can be downloaded as a pdf here.

Nothing gets done sensibly, or fairly, unless a real person makes it happen. This is true for a teacher in a classroom, a CEO in a company, a nurse in a hospital, a worker on a shop floor, an inspector of a restaurant, or a high official in Washington.

Making these choices requires an open zone in which the responsible individual feels free to draw on experience and instinct to make a judgment. Sometimes the decision will be a good one, sometimes it won’t. This process of trial and error is how people learn. It is part of economic advancement and the rewards of work. Similarly, achieving innovation requires a real person to imagine the product or method, to judge whether it has a chance of success, and to create the thing.

Today, Western nations are organized to avoid individual choice. Rules and systems tell us how to do things “correctly.” Mindless compliance supplants personal responsibility to achieve a result. The idea is that systems, not humans, will lead us to the promised land.

The harm is not just ideological—that individuals are less free. The harm is practical—things don’t work. Schools are lousy, healthcare unaffordable, government paralyzed, and people feel powerless to do anything about it. Economic growth is slower and the labor force has shrunk—observations suggest that innovation is constricted and job satisfaction has narrowed.

America needs a new public philosophy. Humans must be reinstated as the activating force. Systems and regulations must be rebuilt as a corral with an open area for human responsibility, not as an instruction manual that dictates daily choices. Corporate attitudes that block innovators from building in communities and handicap outsiders from competing with insiders must be exposed as costly to human fulfillment. Law should be a framework for free choice, not a replacement. 

Put humans in charge. A revolution will be required. But that is proof only of how far we’ve slipped. This is not just a plea for better public policy. This is a new belief structure. Let us take responsibility. Judge how we do, don’t tell us how to do it.

Comment ›

The Future of the Individual: A Forum with Philip Howard and Edmund Phelps

Event program with agenda.

On Thursday, November 6, Common Good and Columbia University’s Center on Capitalism and Society will hold an afternoon forum in New York City on reviving the conditions for individual initiative in America. The event’s hosts are Common Good’s Philip K. Howard and Nobel laureate Edmund S. Phelps of Columbia’s Center on Capitalism and Society. Other expected participants include:

  • William R. Brody, MD, Salk Institute
  • Stephen Goldsmith, former Mayor of Indianapolis
  • Anthony Gottlieb, former Executive Editor of The Economist
  • Heather R. Higgins, Randolph Foundation
  • Kay S. Hymowitz, Manhattan Institute
  • Sandeep Jauhar, MD, author of Doctored
  • Daniel Kahneman, Princeton University
  • Robert E. Litan, Brookings Institution
  • James Mackintosh, Financial Times
  • Peter Pazzaglini, Columbia University
  • Robert Pondiscio, Thomas B. Fordham Institute
  • Andrzej Rapaczynski, Columbia Law School
  • Richard Robb, Columbia University
  • Esa Saarinen, Aalto University (Finland)
  • Robert J. Shiller, Yale University
  • William H. Simon, Columbia Law School
  • Juan Vicente Sola, University of Buenos Aires
  • Mark C. Taylor, Columbia University

The forum will address how bureaucracy, corporatism, and cultural trends have diminished the room for individual autonomy and initiative, and will explore possible solutions. Reforms to expand individual opportunities and ownership of daily choices include simplifying regulatory structures, changing corporate incentives away from short-term thinking, fostering decentralized government, discouraging uniform solutions to social problems, sponsoring local manufacturing to build the conditions for know-how, redirecting education toward imagination and creativity, and expanding the public narrative to highlight the role of human initiative in all accomplishment.

The forum will consist of short opening presentations, followed by four panels. A cocktail hour will conclude the event.

Event Details

Title: The Future of the Individual

Date: Thursday, November 6

Time: 1:00 PM to 5:30 PM (followed by a cocktail hour). Registration and lunch begin at noon. Event program with agenda.

Location: Covington & Burling, 43rd Floor, The New York Times Building, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY

RSVP: Registration required. Please e-mail your name, title, and affiliation to Ruth Mary Giverin at rmgiverin@commongood.org. Please e-mail Ruth with any questions as well.

This event is made possible by the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Comment ›

David Brooks Cites Philip Howard, “The Rule of Nobody”

In his September 16 op-ed, "Goodbye, Organization Man," New York Times columnist David Brooks references Common Good Chair Philip Howard and his new book, The Rule of Nobody:

As recent books by Francis Fukuyama and Philip Howard have detailed, this is an era of general institutional decay. New, mobile institutions languish on the drawing board, while old ones are not reformed and tended. Executives at public agencies are robbed of discretionary power. Their hands are bound by court judgments and regulations.

When the boring tasks of governance are not performed, infrastructures don’t get built. Then, when epidemics strike, people die.

You can read Brooks’ entire essay here.

Comment ›

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.

Comment ›

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.

Comment ›

“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.

Comment ›

The Danger in Children’s Safety

Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard

“The Overprotected Kid,” Hanna Rosin’s excellent article on children’s play in The Atlantic, should be required reading for all parents. The starting description of a play area in Wales—where children wallow in mud, try to swing over a creek on a rope (and often fall in), and even start fires to warm themselves—will be a form of shock therapy for parents who have been conditioned to think they would go to jail for permitting any of these activities. 

America’s obsession with safety, as I and others have written, has stunted children’s development. It has made play so boring that American children spend hours on the sofa with their video games, contributing to the crisis of obesity. Hovering parents eliminate the excitement and mental stimulation of children taking responsibility for themselves. 

By overprotecting our children, experts have concluded, we have subjected them to the far greater danger of not being able to cope with the real risks of adulthood. They will grow up to compete with children from other countries who will be more resourceful, and, indeed, if studies are correct, even mentally sharper, than they are. 

Safety is a natural urge. Humans are wired to stay in the safety of a cave if hunger doesn’t drive us out into the daylight and risks of the real world. I debated someone on children’s safety at Yale Law School a couple of years ago who scoffed at the ludicrous suggestion that children should be encouraged to manage risk on their own. 

But safety is only half an idea. The question is what we’re giving up to get it. Wrapping children in bubble wrap will prevent scraped knees and broken legs. But it will also suffocate them. That’s what America is doing to our children. Don’t believe me or even Hanna Rosin. Look at the work of Joe Frost, Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play, Tim Gill (in the UK), Richard Louv (about children and nature), Darell Hammond of KaBOOM!, and Lenore Skenazy.  

How do we right this ship? In America’s lawsuit-obsessed culture, any accident is sure to result in litigation. Defensive play is standard operating procedure. That’s why some schools ban running at recess, and tag. Dodgeball is almost a capital crime. The cure here is a dramatic shift in law: American courts must bar lawsuits over children’s accidents unless the judge (or an expert panel) decides that the activity or circumstances posed unreasonable dangers. The standard must no longer be avoiding risk—risk is often healthy, and attracts children at the same time as it helps them develop resourcefulness. The correct standard is unreasonable danger. Accidents will happen. That doesn’t mean someone did something wrong.

There’s also a cultural challenge. Parents have no clue anymore what’s right or wrong. Just this week, Darell Hammond and I decided to jointly pursue a project to change public perceptions. The safety police have had the tiller for far too long. It’s time to take it back, for our children’s sake.

Comment ›

 1 2 3 >  Last ›