"The Death of Common Sense" by Philip K. Howard (1994)
"We would revolt if government tried to prohibit us from standing on a chair to reach something on a high shelf; or restricted the number of cups of coffee we drink, or told us how to clean our house. But that is the level of detail of modern regulatory law. We suffer it as individuals mainly through institutions like schools, hospitals, and places of work. But those institutions are a large part of our lives, and wrap closely around us. The thin separation only mutes each indignity, causing an overall ache and making it hard to pinpoint the cause. We don't revolt mainly because we don't understand."
Philip K. Howard is a lawyer and author of three books. He's worked with the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations to both curtail the spread of bureaucracy and place limits on legal process. A lot of what he says in The Death of Common Sense is summed up in his TED talk, which you can see here.
But in case you'd rather read my synopsis, The Death of Common Sense describes the effect of the legal edifice built up over the course of decades on the American psyche. It also describes the wastefulness and inefficiency this legal edifice and its attendant bureaucracy engenders in every aspect of American life. It also illustrates the vast gulf which exists between America's monolithic, centrally-planned government and the smaller, decision-based government envisioned by the founding fathers.
Many have pointed to the ills of modern American society and attempted to find a "first cause" behind the decline of a once mighty empire. As this book would have it, the culprit is the more "process oriented" approach taken toward government in the 60s, which resulted in the mammoth, intransigent bureaucracy that we encounter today. Out of an understandable desire for fairness and impartiality, procedures were put in place that effectively removed the decision-making process from government, replacing a government run by decision-makers with a government run by impersonal (and immutable) rules.
The remedy for all out troubles, suggests the author, is a move away from the rules which impinge upon our freedom, to a state of affairs in which those best suited to judge (and decide) are left to do so. Instead of an elaborate system of checks and balances designed to remove the human element, we would instead embrace a more humane, albeit flawed, form of government, in which those in charge would have more authority to decide important issues.
And it all sounds great. I agree with every word. But I am left to wonder - as I am left to wonder with all arguments that recall former glories - that if this was the way we're meant to be, why did we ever change it? If it worked so well before, why did we opt for the system that now confronts us?
Then, of course, I begin to think about all of the horrible things that more empowered decision-makers are apt to do, and all of the myriad ways in which power can be abused. What if we give power back to those who will misuse it? What then?
Is our system of government perfect? No, not by a long shot. The Trump Presidency proves that, if nothing else. But I think the answer to our ills is vastly more complex than The Death of Common Sense would have you believe. Certainly it's a place to start, but how to start it? And when? And on what scale?
The devil, as they say, is in the details. Perhaps unfortunately for us, precious few of these details are to be found in The Death of Common Sense.