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.