The Rule of Nobody

Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government

[Amazon Link]

This sat in my "get at library" queue for a long time, and my newly-acquired Portsmouth Library card allowed me to get it, and so… sorry, I was kind of disappointed.

The author, Philip K. Howard, is unhappy, nay, disconsolate, with the state of American governance. In a phrase, we have become "rule happy", ever-increasing layers of detailed regulations that impede or prevent all sorts of worthy endeavors. Lots of anecdotes, like about the Bayonne Bridge road-raising project; it was delayed (but not successfully) by seemingly endless (but not actually endless) environmental review and litigation (probably frivolous).

Howard's argument is weak. He laments America's inability to "make public choices". But: one of the things he bemoans (page 41) is New Jersey's then-Governor Chris Christie's call to kill a plan to build a "much-needed train tunnel under the Hudson River".

But I wanted to protest to the author: that was a public decision made by an accountable official. In other words, the sort of thing you said you wanted to happen! And as near as I can tell, there's been no effort to revive this fantastically expensive project now that Christie's out of office.

Howard conveniently sums up his thesis in 18 "propositions", developed throughout the book. (Example, number 7: "Official authority requires an open area of choice defined by legal boundaries". Fine.)

His solution? Five (count 'em, five) constitutional amendments; he calls them collectively the "Bill of Responsibilities".

They aren't awful. There are even theoretically good ideas in there, like giving the President a line-item veto of spending items. But amendments are devilishly difficult to enact. My objection is the same as it is to a "balanced budget" amendment. If there's sufficient public agreement and sentiment for an amendment to do accomplish goal G, there's enough agreement to accomplish G legislatively. (I.e., just balance the freakin' budget, Congress; it only takes a majority vote.)