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Author analyzes American government system

| Thursday, October 2, 2014

Philip K. Howard, author of “The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government,” spoke Thursday evening and addressed the question, “Can American Government Be Fixed?” The answer, he said, is yes, but it requires a complete overhaul of the current system.

20141002, 20141002, Annette Sayre 2014-2015, Annette Sayre. American Government Lecture, DebartoloAnnette Sayre | The Observer
“We’ve tried to create a system of government in an effort to make sure things work properly that is structurally paralyzed,” Howard said. “We hoped that we would protect ourselves and enhance our freedoms by making sure government didn’t do things wrong. Not only did we make government ineffective, but we are also shackling our own freedom.”

Howard gave a survey of the different ideas about why government is ineffective and the methods to solve it. “President Obama appointed the most brilliant regulatory scholar in America, Cass Sunstein, to come in and run his regulatory reform efforts,” Howard said. “He probably fixed scores of them out of about 500,000.”

“Another common solution is that we just need less polarization,” Howard said. But, according to Howard, the problem wouldn’t be solved if parties came together and compromised. “The problem is … we’ll drive over a fiscal cliff holding hands, but it wouldn’t really do much for the country in my view.”

Howard praised the populist energy of the Tea Party but disagreed with the view that government has to be eliminated to the maximum extent.

“I think in a modern interdependent world [with] globalized economies we need government oversight for clean air, clean water, to make sure our toys don’t have lead paint on them,” he said.

While Howard called the Tea Party’s solution wrong, he said he believed their anger and energy was justified.

Howard also criticized the notion that better leadership could fix government.

“The truth is, I argue, George Washington if reincarnated could not run this country,” Howard said. “The reason is that law has piled up … like sediment in the harbor so it’s impossible, it’s illegal, to do anything sensibly in our society.”

Howard illustrated the legal obstacles people faced when trying to do the right thing. He spoke of one incident in New Jersey where it took twelve days and $12,000 in legal fees to remove a tree branch from a creek after a flood.

Howard argued American government has two fatal flaws.

“The first is that we don’t have the idea that law has to adapt to changing circumstances. We treat every law like it’s the Ten Commandments even though at this point it’s the 10 million commandments,” Howard said.

“The second problem … is that we have this modern philosophy that prevents humans on a daily basis from adapting to the circumstances,” Howard said. He compared the 29-page interstate highway bill that created 41,000 miles of highway in the 1950’s to the current 584-page transportation bill that “hasn’t done anything yet because no one can get approval to start.”

Howard said government’s attempts to make the law clear have simply made it become overbearing. “It’s central planning, it’s not the rule of law, it’s not a legal system allowing people to go forth during the day and exercise their freedom to try and make things happen,” Howard said. “It’s like Soviet central planning except the planners are dead … democracy really, is run by dead people.”

“I’m not optimistic … but I do have hope,” Howard said. The solution calls for a redesignation of the laws, similar to the establishment of the Uniform Commercial Code in the 1950s, and in history with Justinian and Napoleon, he said. “Every time there has been a recodification it has been like replacing a muddy road with a paved highway,” Howard said.

“The simple message here, harsh but simple, is that American government is broken, everybody knows it,” Howard said. “So if we want things to work we’re gonna have to give humans responsibility again and that requires completely rebuilding our system of government.”

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