The Death of Common Sense by Philip K. Howard
I was recently pleased to discover a book that, while far more focused on practical, unphilosophical matters, does as much to angry up the blood and make one want to burn Washington, DC to the ground as any radical philosophical screed: Philip K. Howard’s The Death of Common Sense, published in 1994 at the peak of Gingrich-era anti-government sentiment (and the start of the Republican Congress, replaced by the Democrats last month after twelve frustrating years). It’s a marvelous collection of infuriating anecdotes about the stupid results of government regulations, about one per page, starting off with the story of how New York City elevator regulations prevented Mother Teresa from opening a homeless shelter here (and still we leap to government regulations as the only imaginable solution for problems like climate change, to use the topic of this month’s Debate at Lolita Bar as an example).
Howard’s book reminds me very much (perhaps not coincidentally, though I haven’t yet asked him) of my former boss John Stossel’s one-hour specials for ABC News, which began around the same time (with me starting my six-year stint there in 1995): example after example of government doing things so outrageous that philosophical disagreements almost seem to become irrelevant, and anyone with a brain is forced to say “Enough!” [UPDATE: as is indeed the working title, I believe, of a Stossel special tentatively scheduled for the night of March 23].
I may sound radical sometimes, and I may have majored in philosophy, but at the end of the day I still think practical, utilitarian consequences matter most (the sort of social ramifications of everyday decision-making described in, to take two items from my current to-read pile, an issue of Manhattan Institute’s City Journal or the book Structures of Everyday Life, which surveys the empirical details and reconstructed stats, to the extent we know them, of ordinary people’s lives in the fifteenth to eighteenth century in Europe — a book that Michel Evanchik, moderator of our Debates at Lolita Bar, was kind enough to give me).
I can’t imagine too many people, of any ideological stripe, coming away from Howard’s book thinking regulation works — nor, more important, that it is workable.
[...] And on another less-partisan note, let me add that though I nearly always expect government to do a worse job than the market would with the same resources, I do not think it follows that government is always completely ineducable. Indeed, my friend Jenny Foreit, yet another Brown alum and no right-winger, now works for libertarian-leaning Philip K. Howard’s Common Good project (his book The Death of Common Sense was one of the first Book Selections I picked on this blog), trying to find smarter ways to handle law and legislation but without just being shrill anarchists about it like yours truly: Here’s a sample of the dialogue they’ve begun, involving New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg and others, on how to improve government, a subject left and right alike are increasingly interested in — and a subject that the Republican Congress perhaps should have taken a greater interest in before the brutal electoral smackdown they received in 2006 — but for that year, we must await my next two Retro-Journal entries, and in the meantime I have a train to catch. [...]
[...] The pros and cons of loser pays will be the topic of discussion this week on NewTalk.org, a civility-encouraging political-discourse project of libertarian lawyer Philip K. Howard, whose minions include my non-libertarian but nonetheless swell friend Jenny Foreit and whose book The Death of Common Sense nonetheless does wonders to angry up the blood against nonsensical laws. [...]
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