From the Right



A Fail-Safe Society Is Sure to Fail

Michael Barone on

When are we going to trust our fellow Americans again? When are we going to allow qualified individuals with responsibility to make decisions without consulting detailed rulebooks and formal procedures?

Those are questions New York lawyer and author Philip K. Howard (one of whose books is called, simply, "Try Common Sense") asks in his latest mini-tome "Everyday Freedom." The freedom he is writing about is not the freedom of eccentric individuals to demand special treatment and punctiliously pronounced pronouns, but the freedom of individuals in positions of authority to make decisions -- and actually get things done.

The book, fully titled "Everyday Freedom: Designing the Framework for a Flourishing Society," comes just as the federal government is grappling, under the glare of national publicity, with the need to replace the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which fell into the main channel of Baltimore's harbor after being hit by a 984-foot-long container ship bereft of electric power.

The bridge, completed in 1977, took five years to design and build. Initial estimates are that it could take 18 months to several years to replace, or more if it were redesigned or replaced by a tunnel.

That accident occurred after "Everyday Freedom" went to press, but the book's lessons are relevant. Once upon a time, Americans knew how to build things rapidly and well. The Empire State Building was constructed by a syndicate headed by John J. Raskob and former New York Gov. Al Smith in one year and 45 days in 1930-31.

Government could build fast, too. Gen. Brehon Somervell led New Deal Works Progress Administration workers in building LaGuardia Airport in months, then completed construction of the Pentagon (designed over a long weekend) within 15 months in 1941-43. It took a direct hit on 9/11, and until 2023 was still the largest office building in the world.


In contrast, the Biden administration's much ballyhooed $5 billion 2021 program to encourage electric vehicles has produced exactly eight charging stations. What would Somervell say?

We don't know, because Somervell died in 1955, before, as Howard writes, "starting in the 1960s, the social and legal institutions of America were remade to try to eliminate unfair choices by people in positions of irresponsibility."

Yale law professor Charles Reich argued that government decisions created "new property" for deprived individuals -- and so legislatures "with a simplistic notion of public interest" couldn't reduce welfare payments.

The 1960s-70s "legal revolution," Howard argues, produced prescriptive rulebooks, formal procedures and new litmus tests of individual rights. Some of this reflected a mistrust in segregationist Southerners, although the mandates -- like the Supreme Court's 1971 Griggs v. Duke Power Co., which effectively banned aptitude tests for job applicants -- came down just as elite Southerners were giving up on barring Black people from jobs, schools and voting.


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