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09.26.10

Manifesto for a New Politics

Hailed by David Brooks for seizing "the crucial theme of the moment," lawyer and author Philip K. Howard proposes five ways to liberate America, streamline government, and revive our can-do spirit.

Government is broken. It spends money we don’t have, takes no responsibility for the future, and suffocates daily freedoms under a thickening blanket of unnecessary bureaucracy and litigation.

Both the Democratic and Republican parties are to blame. Instead of appealing to our better nature, they promise short-term self-interest of continued entitlements or lower taxes. Instead of leadership for a responsible society, they attack each other with partisan half-truths, oblivious to the critical need to change course.

Changing leaders is not enough. Decades of accumulated law and bureaucracy have made it impossible for anyone to use common sense. New leaders come to Washington and immediately get stuck in the bureaucratic goo.

Government needs to be cleaned out. Government has a vital role in a crowded society, as a steward of common resources and public services. But it cannot deal effectively with the important challenges of today—whether to contain runaway entitlements or to create clean energy—when resources are committed to goals of past decades. Accumulated law has become a fortress for the status quo. Unnecessary law and bureaucracy also act as a heavy weight on society, making it hard for teachers, doctors, and other citizens to pursue their dreams. Many Americans no longer feel they can make a difference.

Government will never fix itself. Washington and state capitals have become disconnected from the public they serve, focused on partisan tug-of-wars instead of on the vital needs of society.

Change can only come from outside pressure. Americans must come together to demand a new approach to governing.

The core principle for change is this: individual responsibility. At every level of society, individuals must be free to take responsibility. This requires streamlining government and law to allow people to use their judgment to meet public goals. Individual responsibility is the key to all accomplishment. It is also the key to accountability. Who is responsible for the failures in government? No one, because government has become a bureaucratic swamp. Where are new leaders? Leadership is basically illegal in a legal thicket.

Americans must come together and force a basic overhaul of America’s governing structures.

Five changes are essential to create a responsive government and to revive America’s can-do spirit:

1. Clean out the stables of government. Democracy is not supposed to be a one-way valve, always piling new laws on top of old laws. In each area of government, appoint respected citizens and experts to make proposals to clean out unnecessary entitlements, mandates, and regulations. Going forward, laws and regulations should expire periodically under sunset laws. Government must make choices for the future, not stay mired in choices of the past.

2. Radically simplify law. Laws must be understandable to be effective. Write laws to set public goals and general principles. Leave implementation to designated officials, with clear lines of accountability. The Constitution is 16 pages long. No statute should be over 50 pages.

3. Push responsibility down to local organizations. Give back to Americans the freedom to make a difference—without unnecessary interference of centralized bureaucracy, especially in schools and other social services. Let public schools operate with the same freedoms as charter schools. Hold people accountable for results, not bureaucratic compliance.

4. Restore boundaries to lawsuits. Fear of lawsuits has poisoned human interaction in most areas of society, especially health care and schools. Law should set outer boundaries of required conduct, not interfere in everyday disagreements. This requires judges and legislatures to define reasonable social norms as a matter of law. Create special health courts to provide a foundation of reliability and trust, essential to making health care safe and affordable.

5. Revive accountability for public employees. Individual accountability is a critical component of a functioning democracy. Overhaul civil service and teacher tenure: Public servants should have more freedom to take responsibility, and they must be accountable for their choices. Make government transparent; sunlight is the best disinfectant.

There’s nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed—if Americans are free to use their common sense. But the legal swamp of modern government won’t let us roll up our sleeves and make needed choices. That’s why Americans must come together and force a basic overhaul of America’s governing structures. Our freedom, and our children’s future, depend upon it.

Philip K. Howard, a lawyer, is the author of Life Without Lawyers: Liberating Americans From Too Much Law, just released by W.W. Norton, and the bestselling The Death of Common Sense. He is chairman of Common Good and advises leaders of both parties on legal and regulatory reform.