From the Right



A Fail-Safe Society Is Sure to Fail

Michael Barone on

Environmental legislation, in the process of vastly reducing unhealthful particulate emissions, required environmental impact statements, which these days can run to hundreds of thousands of pages, to be litigated and relitigated in unpredictable courts.

Those moves were fortified by Robert Caro's "The Power Broker," a massive biography of Robert Moses, who ran roughshod over protesters in building bridges, highways, and housing projects in metro New York, and by "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" by Jane Jacobs, who (thankfully) stopped Moses from plowing a freeway through her beloved Greenwich Village.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has taken to citing "The Power Broker," and his department has cited Jacobs. He seems less interested in dismantling the impediments to decisive action that Howard describes.

The '60s legal revolution was intended to "protect individuals against unfair or biased decisions by supervisors," Howard writes, by reformers painfully aware of such decisions in the past. But "weakening individual authority had the paradoxical effect of weakening the freedoms and opportunities of individuals. Protocols replaced initiative. Behavior codes replaced spontaneity."

Americans are, or should be, learning the lesson that trying to create a fail-safe society in fact creates a society that is sure to fail. The way out is to clean the Augean stables, to get rid of the tangled mess of requirements and statements and paperwork, and let competent people get things done.

This is what Pete Wilson, former Republican governor of California, did after the Northridge earthquake destroyed Los Angeles' Interstate 10 in 1994. He ditched the rules and provided penalties for late work and premiums for finishing ahead of time. The project, estimated to take two years, was completed in two months and two days.


And it's what Josh Shapiro, Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, did when a truck accident destroyed an overpass on Interstate 95 in Philadelphia. Shapiro suspended all regulations that "would in any way prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action." The highway was reopened in 12 days.

The obvious importance of the I-10 and I-95 arteries in Los Angeles and Philadelphia made the two governors' decisions widely popular. But unbeknownst to the public, the legal thicket created in the '60s imposes enormous opportunity costs every day on a society that doesn't have the public infrastructure or private developments its officials and entrepreneurs want to provide. In "Everyday Freedom," Howard tells us we can do better.


Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. His new book, "Mental Maps of the Founders: How Geographic Imagination Guided America's Revolutionary Leaders," is now available.

Copyright 2024 U.S. News and World Report. Distibuted by Creators Syndicate Inc.




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