The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government - Q and A with Philip K. Howard

"All of life works on responsibility," says Philip K. Howard. "Everybody listening to this...has achieved what they've achieved in life because they took responsibility to make it happen. Government is no different than that."

In 1995, Howard wrote The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America, kicking off a national conversation about bureaucratic overreach and stupid regulations. In his new book, The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government, he extends and elaborates his analysis. It isn't bureaucratic gridlock or partisan polarization that's keeping Washington in perpetual mismanagement, argues Howard, but a fog of rules and regulations that has made it nearly impossible to figure out who is responsible.

Until civil servants can use common sense and practical judgement, he says, the government won't gain the flexibility needed for solving today's problems.

In a wide-ranging conversation with Reason's Nick Gillespie, Howard discusses many topics, including the following: the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's inability to quickly raise the height of the Bayonne Bridge to accommodate newer, taller ships (00:57); why even President Obama doesn't control the executive branch (5:37); why regulations haven't made nursing homes better (7:50); how even New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo couldn't shut down an unused juvenile detention center due to union rules (9:12); the long history of doctors gaming Medicare (10:31); why businesses are more flexible than governments (12:10); how technocratic views of government took over America; why mandatory minimums have led to abuse by prosecutors (18:42); specific reforms to shift from "automatic government" to individual responsibility (25:44); the goals of the Common Good Foundation (43:00); and the high probablitiy of "seismic change" in America's political culture (44:10).

About 45 minutes.

Shot by Jim Epstein and Joshua Swain. Edited by Swain.

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Read Gillespie's review of The Rule of Nobody.

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  • GILMORE||

    "Until civil servants can use common sense and practical judgement..."

    HA!
    ....

    Wait, he's not joking?

  • Almanian!||

    Yeah, this. My reaction, upon reading that, was, "So....never." Got it.

  • Wasteland Wanderer||

    Until civil servants can use common sense and practical judgement, he says, the government won't gain the flexibility needed for solving today's problems.

    They'd need to actually have common sense and practical judgement first...

    And of course, this opens us up to even more "Rule of Man" instead of "Rule of Law". Think Lois Lerner with even MORE power to arbitrarily decide who gets an audit.

    No, what needs to be done is to massively prune back laws and regulations and give those petty little bureaucrats much smaller areas of influence to fuck around with.

  • ||

    "...much smaller areas of influence to fuck around with."

    I was reading over this old, dusty document the other day....damn thing is over 100 years old...and I noticed that this has been done already.

  • ||

    Until civil servants can use common sense and practical judgement, he says, the government won't gain the flexibility needed for solving today's problems.

    Bureaucracies are designed to attract people who are the antithesis of common sense and practical judgement. You may as well say everything will be fine if only we can raise more unicorns. That aside, it's not the government's job to solve today's problems. It's their job to referee the playing field and get the fuck out of the way.

  • Ivan Pike||

    it's not the government's job to solve today's problems. It's their job to referee the playing field and get the fuck out of the way.

    Which is why you bind them with rules.

  • sarcasmic||

    Which is why you bind them with rules.

    Rules like "Congress shall make no law" or "shall not be infringed?"

    Rules don't matter if they are not enforced.

  • Ivan Pike||

    You got it.

  • Libertymike||

    Rules suck.

  • Rich||

    Suck rules.

  • perlhaqr||

    You may as well say everything will be fine if only we can raise more unicorns.

    Do you have a license for Unicorn Husbandry?

  • Hyperion||

    It's their job to referee the playing field and get the fuck out of the way

    At least they got the first part of it down.

  • Libertymike||

    Anarchy is how to save man from dead laws and broken government.

    What never saves man is reliance upon the nation state or giving some mob a monopoly on the administration of justice or the use of force or the control of money.

    The fact is that the nation state, its "defense" and its "greater good" and its promotion of "public safety", has engaged in mass murder to the tune of many hundreds of millions in the last 150 years.

  • sarcasmic||

    How do individuals maintain anarchy when groups of men organize themselves for the purpose of violence and call themselves government?

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    If you're truly interested in an answer, sarc, read up on what Robert P. Murphy has to say in "But Wouldn't Warlords Take Over?

  • sarcasmic||

    I'll check it out.

  • Libertymike||

    He makes some good points.

    Yeah, you could chalk that up to confirmation bias. Any argument advance in support of anarchy is likely one to be well received by me.

    But, confirmation bias is not, necessarily, always to be condemned. After all, if you post a link to a Daily Mail pic of Ann Hathaway working out in her Catwoman suit in 4 inch heels, and proclaim that she is hot, of course, after I click on the link and observe, I will get a huge boner and then post a comment telling everybody why she is so hot.

  • Dr Fallout||

    I second that boner.

  • Rich||

    The fact is that the nation state, its "defense" and its "greater good" and its promotion of "public safety", has engaged in mass murder to the tune of many hundreds of millions in the last 150 years.

    But just imagine how bad it would have been *without* those nation states!

    *** shudders ***

  • Edwin||

    accepting that there will be a state of some form no matter what, and using that knowledge to decide it isn't worth atempting to make no-government but instead make a better government

    is NOT the same thing as saying you expect government to work well all the time or that problems in government will only be solved through government. Plenty of statist libertarians envision that goverment now and everwyhere will need to be challenged sometimes.

    I could easily see, if I were a governor or senator or something, myself slowly creating more freedom-oriented laws, which would be struck down by the courts for no good legal or other reason, and eventually I'd have to make a standoff and say we're not going to listen to their decisions anymore.

    Best state I could see for this is Texas. Am I right? Should I move there?

  • Stormy Dragon||

    the goals of the Common Good Foundation

    That name alone makes me suspicious of their ultimate goals.

  • Dr Fallout||

    They may as well named it "For the Children Foundation."

  • SusanM||

    Abolish the Patriot Act for a start. It's like that one law erased the entire constitution. It's now the go to excuse for government or business to screw people.

  • ||

    That law and a mountain of others plus numerous court rulings are not just bad ideas, but blatantly unconstitutional; they are not laws or rulings.

    The constitution, as it is, is pretty damn good. As Sarc points out above, that means nothing if no one pays attention to it.

  • Matrix||

    Until civil servants can use common sense and practical judgement, he says, the government won't gain the flexibility needed for solving today's problems.

    It is shunned. I know. I've been just about screaming that I do not want to throw away hundreds of millions worth of inventory that we have, because we will eventually need it. They want to save on holding costs, which are minute when compared to the cost of buying these assets all over again.

    And they want to move to a "just in time" supply chain. You can't have a "just in time" supply chain in the military. It's too unpredictable, but leadership does not understand this. But I guess they're okay with non-mission capable equipment, so that they can say "we saved the government X amount of dollars in holding costs." Oh, you know who owns the facilities where we store our equipment? Another DOD agency!! It's only one agency giving money to another.

    Seriously, I wish 60 Minutes would investigate why we are throwing away hundreds of millions (actually billions service wide) on perfectly good assets we're going to need, especially if we get caught up in another war.

  • Rich||

    You can't have a "just in time" supply chain in the military.

    *** rising intonation ***

    What about 3-D printing?

  • Rich||

    Seriously, Matrix, I understand your frustration.

    I apologize for a poor attempt at cheering you up.

  • Matrix||

    Nah, it's okay.

    I just see this as a bigger waste of taxpayer money. We have the stuff already. Throwing it away and knowing we'll have to buy it back eventually is just absurd. I don't care if we won't need it for another 10 or more years based off of peacetime demands. When another war breaks out, the stock we have now (for some items) should carry us a little until industry can ramp up production.

    But, hell, I welcome 3D printing. Just don't think it's caught up to the point where it can manufacture military aircraft parts.

  • KWebb||

    Seriously, I wish 60 Minutes would investigate why we are throwing away hundreds of millions (actually billions service wide) on perfectly good assets we're going to need, especially if we get caught up in another war.

    Have to keep the vendors in business.

  • JW||

    OT: Income Inequality Institute Will Pay Paul Krugman $25,000 Per Month

    What do we call the point, where it is no longer possible to parody a a civilization? Doucheularity? Crony-collapse?

    Apologies to a Gawker link.

  • ||

    At a certain point you would hope that people would decide that being totally, obviously, obnoxiously hypocritical would embarrass them, but...I think $25,000/month is probably too much of a motivator.

    The thing this really says is that what political organizations and people say they're about or call themselves is 100% unadulterated bullshit. If you renamed this organization the Class Envy and Warfare Institute, it would make a lot more sense.

  • Matrix||

    Would I sell my soul for $300,000 a year? Hmmm...

    No. sorry. Couldn't do it.

  • John||

    Think about what this is. It is some sham think tank run by NYU. That means Pauli Kruginuts is getting his $25,000 a month from government subsidized student loans made to students who will probably never pay them back and will live their life in debt. Talk about sucking from the blood of the proletariat.

  • ||

    I think if you renamed pretty much every political organization "The Bullshit and Enriching Our Officers Institute", you'd be way ahead of the game.

  • ||

    Peak Irony

  • ||

    Paralogocracy.

  • ||

    Shit.

  • Rich||

    Ponerology.

  • John||

    John's Seven Rules of Bureaucracies

    1. All bureaucracies are punished for single notorious instances of misconduct that manage to get public attention but rarely rewarded for successes.

    2. Since success doesn't produce rewards and instances of misconduct or unpopular decisions produce pain, leadership in a bureaucracy never gives its employees discretion for fear they might use it in a way that will harm the bureaucracy.

    3. The employees and the leadership of a bureaucracy will develop a symbiotic relationship regarding rules. The employees will welcome rules because it relieves them of the responsibility for the decision they make (we had to do this the rule says so) and the leadership views more rules as the only way they can keep their employees from causing pain to the bureaucracy.

    4. The application of strict rules necessarily produces embarrassing results as strict rules can never be applied to all circumstances.

    5. In reaction to embarrassing results from the application of strict rules, the bureaucracy writes more and more complex rules with more and more exceptions trying to make the rules fit every circumstance, which has the opposite effect of producing more embarrassing results as each new exception and amendment to the rule produces its own set of unintended consequences.

  • John||

    6. The resulting explosion of rules creates a system too complex for any one person to understand, returning employees nearly complete discretion as any virtually any decision can be justified by the labyrinth of rules, yet still relieves them of any personal accountability since every decision can be said to be mandated by the rules.

    7. All bureaucracies therefore eventually produce complex and unintelligible laws and all powerful yet completely unaccountable employees.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Those are some pretty accurate rules.

    I haven't formulated a list of rules. In fact the only rules I have are "TED talks are interesting and informative" and "TEDx talks are a bunch of non-vetted, pretentious assholes bullshitting for 15 minutes"

  • John||

    I need to write I book. There should be something useful come out of my torturing myself working for government so long.

    Something tells me I wouldn't get a TED talk out of it. I bet they wouldn't dig what I had to say.

  • Libertymike||

    John, kudos.

    I can tell you without equivocation, no bullshit, that I have, in both my personal and professional capacities, banged my freakin head up against the wall in having to accept that I was caught in the vortex of Rules 3 and 4 with respect to dealing with both public and private sector bureaucracies.

    Of course, the private sector bureaucracies to which I think your Rules most apply, tend to be the larger, publicly traded, multinationals, and most likely companies in the most heavily regulated industries. Certainly the banks, insurance companies, etc.

  • ||

    Isn't this the dude who was on TI last night?

    Poor sap had a couple of minutes to convey his message.

    Lucky it was Matt doing the interview, if it was Kennedy he wouldn't have a chance to say even his name.

  • RannedPall||

    OT: LA now has another newspaper: The LA Register, and LA Weekly is slightly disturbed that their editorial pages will have a "libertarian-ish" bias. Yeah. Because the LAT and LA Weekly remain pillars of unbiased journalism.
    http://m.laweekly.com/informer.....paper-town

  • RishJoMo||

    Sounds like a plan to me brah.

    www.GotsDatAnon.tk

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