Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Rules Not Virtue

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Rules Not Virtue

Article excerpt

Rules Not Virtue The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government BY PHILIP K. HOWARD NORTON, 256 PAGES, $23.95

When a winter storm in 2011 sent a tree crashing into a creek in a town in New Jersey, officials acted quickly to remove it and stem the flooding-until a man ("probably the town lawyer") apprised them that a "class C-1 creek" could not be altered without a formal approval process. After twelve days and $12,000, they secured a permit to do what they wanted to do the moment they noticed the calamity.

This is the first idiotic episode in The Rule of Nobody, Philip K. Howard's brisk tract on how rules, regulations, laws, and bureaucracy are strangling common sense and responsible behavior in America. He terms it a "progressive disease," an accumulation of red tape, government review, environmental assessment, thousand-page legislations, inspections, codes, and licenses that produces "bureaucratic overkill" and saps innovation, knowhow, and plain practicality. The system wears people down, Howard writes, burdening citizens with microscopic and irrelevant restrictions that would outrage them if they were not so commonplace.

A soup kitchen in New Jersey had for twenty-six years served the poor and elderly three hundred meals per day until the health department stopped it. Meals were made by nearby churchgoers in their own homes, you see, and state law requires that every preparation site be examined, and the department didn't have time to cover every kitchen. Opening a restaurant in New York City can necessitate a permit from eleven different agencies. Every public school in the city must follow "literally thousands of rules, emanating from every level of government. . . . Disciplining a student potentially requires sixty-six separate steps." The system passed the point of absurdity long ago. When in 2011 the state of Colorado developed rules for day-care centers, it even addressed building blocks: "at least two (2) sets of blocks with a minimum of ten (10) blocks per set ... space with a flat building surface shall be available ... not in the main traffic area."

The natural targets for exasperation are the public officials who implement those killing minutiae, but the officials suffer, too, Howard says. They know how inapt the rules can be, but they can't break them without jeopardizing their jobs, so they turn into obtuse robots. Yes, they are sometimes corrupt or dictatorial, but much more frequently they endure the system as a straitjacket that thwarts the exercise of sensible judgment. Instead of empowering the government worker, the system takes away his discretion.

That's the key to the whole thing: individual human will. The standard polarity of big government vs. small government misses the point, Howard argues; instead, we should contrast effective to ineffective government, with effectiveness resting precisely on the power of officials high and low to make decisions on their own. The state has spread less through seizures of private resources than it has through micromanaging laws that disable its own workers along with everyone else.

A deep fear underlies this strange treatment. If we allow individuals any latitude, something may go wrong. If we don't spell out in scrupulous detail the rules for nursing homes, for instance, exactly when patients should eat and sleep, an abuse might happen. Someone, somewhere, once freed a creek of blockage and damaged the bank, and so from then on no efforts by anyone anywhere may proceed until properly authorized. The rules subdivide and proliferate in order to cover all circumstances, and government handles their variety not by giving officials the freedom to adapt, but by conceiving more rules, more procedures. Hence, the Rule of Nobody.

The language of the system deadens the spirit. For instance, take these nursing-home regulations in Kansas:

* Windowsill height shall not exceed three feet above the floor for at least 1/2 of the total window area. …

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