This is a good one. Let’s slam the “there oughtta be a law” mentality for a second.
Government’s reaction to just about every new problem — or “problem” — is to legislate, or to tack on some new stricture to a standing policy.
From county revenue offices to the IRS; from rural water departments to the EPA; from city councils to state legislatures to Congress, every fresh injury brings out advocates — sometimes only one or two advocates — pleading loudly, sincerely, for tighter policies; for more law.
Government has its own self-created version of this: It identifies a problem with itself and goes hunting for a counterproductive solution. Often, government officials find themselves wishing to secure a guaranteed revenue supplement by wresting funds from some administrative procedure (think bumping the cost of a business license or instituting a small fee to obtain a public record). Until the cost of doing business or being a resident of a place governed in such fashion hits its tipping point, things hum along.
Municipalities need to do something about their eyesores, so a city will amend its ordinance on derelict properties to start down a path that can result in all-out seizure. Worse, it will use almost any law against any citizen to seize civil assets — check out what’s going on in Philadelphia. There once was no law to justify such things. But law evolves — if people allow it.
More often, though, the suffocating evolution of law occurs because the dumb demand it. Government expands because of the squeaky wheel. When someone’s voice gets loud enough, government descends. It’s great for government when it has a say in setting the narrative. Lately, that’s been the rule rather than the exception. Make it about race, about gender, about the kids. Get the TV folks talking.
Local TV news abounds with next door neighbors and scene gawkers who offer fundamentally stupid observations about tragedy or crime. They often include maudlin, wry appeals to the powers that be to do something. The national media does exactly the same thing, but with a varnish of makeup, wardrobe and a functionally literate vocabulary.
Well, this is what ultimately happens when the government does something, over and over and over again:
The Veterans Affairs scandal of falsified waiting lists is the latest of a never-ending stream of government ineptitude. Every season brings a new headline of failures: the botched roll-out of Obamacare involved 55 uncoordinated IT vendors; a White House report in February found that barely 3 percent of the $800 billion stimulus plan went to rebuild transportation infrastructure; and a March Washington Post report describes how federal pensions are processed by hand in a deep cave in Pennsylvania.
That’s how Philip K. Howard begins his piece in The Atlantic this week about the hell where government’s many roads of good intention invariably converge.
“The reflexive reaction is to demand detailed laws and rules to make sure things don’t go wrong again,” he continues. “But shackling public choices with ironclad rules, ironically, is a main cause of the problems. Dictating correctness in advance supplants the one factor that is indispensable to all successful endeavors — human responsibility.”
What is this guy — a libertarian?
Howard goes on to indict the risible idea that government can, or should, build an anticipation of every eventuality and exception into new laws, policies and programs. We have FEMA floodplain zone ratings that anticipate a 100-year flood, and insurance companies use those ratings to arrive at their coverage costs. But why stop at 100 years?
Modern government is organized on “clear law,” the false premise that by making laws detailed enough to take in all possible circumstances, we can avoid human error. And so over the last few decades, law has gotten ever more granular. But all that regulatory detail, like sediment in a harbor, makes it hard to get anywhere. The 1956 Interstate Highway Act was 29 pages and succeeded in getting 41,000 miles of roads built by 1970. The 2012 transportation bill was 584 pages, and years will pass before workers can start fixing many of those same roads. Health-care regulators have devised 140,000 reimbursement categories for Medicare—including 12 categories for bee stings and 21 categories for “spacecraft accidents.” This is the tip of a bureaucratic iceberg — administration consumes 30 percent of health-care costs.
And again, with the contrast dialed way up:
Until recent decades, law based on principles was the structure of most public law. The Constitution is 10 pages long and provides basic precepts — say, the Fourth Amendment prohibition on “unreasonable searches and seizures” — without trying to define every situation. The recent Volcker Rule regulating proprietary trading, by contrast, is 950 pages, and, in the words of one banker, is “incoherent any way you look at it.”
There’s not a great exhortation or bullet-point list of recommendations at the end of this article, an omission which surely puts the author at risk of being branded one of those conservative complainers (cough *Tea Party* cough) who doesn’t know how to fix anything — but damn well knows what’s broken.
But hold up. We all know what we want from government, and it’s not unattainable. We don’t want perfection, or some assurance that absolutely everything will be okay because the law is constantly evolving in an emergent, altruistic mission to ensure that every thorny situation will be covered.
We just want less government. We need less government. People need to breathe for themselves.
Call that a recommendation; a workable solution to the problem of a fix-it-to-death political culture. It’s a suggestion that requires no elaboration. And that’s nine-tenths of the reason why most politicians won’t give it the time of day.
Read Philip K. Howard’s full piece for The Atlantic here.