When a winter storm in 2011 sent a tree crashing into a creek in a town in New Jersey, officials acted quickly to remove it and stem the flooding—until a man (“probably the town lawyer”) apprised them that a “class C-1 creek” could not be altered without a formal approval process. After twelve days and $12,000, they secured a permit to do what they wanted to do the moment they noticed the calamity.

This is the first idiotic episode in The Rule of Nobody, Philip K. Howard’s brisk tract on how rules, regulations, laws, and bureaucracy are strangling common sense and responsible behavior in America. He terms it a “progressive disease,” an accumulation of red tape, g­overnment review, environmental assessment, thousand-page legislations, inspections, codes, and licenses that produces “bureaucratic overkill” and saps innovation, know-how, and plain practicality. The system wears people down, Howard writes, burdening citizens with microscopic and irrelevant restrictions that would outrage them if they were not so commonplace.

A soup kitchen in New Jersey had for twenty-six years served the poor and elderly three hundred meals per day until the health department stopped it. Meals were made by nearby churchgoers in their own homes, you see, and state law requires that every preparation site be examined, and the department didn’t have time to cover every kitchen. Opening a restaurant in New York City can necessitate a permit from eleven different agencies. Every public school in the city must follow “literally thousands of rules, emanating from every level of government. . . . Disciplining a student potentially requires sixty-six separate steps.” The system passed the point of absurdity long ago. When in 2011 the state of Colorado developed rules for day-care centers, it even addressed building blocks: “at least two (2) sets of blocks with a minimum of ten (10) blocks per set . . . space with a flat building surface shall be available . . . not in the main traffic area.”

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