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Everyday Freedom:
Designing the Framework for a Flourishing Society

by philip k. howard 
rodin books, 128 pages, $18.95

Donald Trump’s election in 2016 exposed a truth that our country’s mandarins were busy denying not only in newspapers and on television but to themselves: Much of the country was furiously angry. People were enraged by growing inequality, bad and dangerous schools, massive illegal immigration, and many other problems. At the heart of their rage lay a sense that a large and very expensive government was floundering and indifferent to their problems, and that this was standing in the way of their ability to go about their everyday lives. Whatever his faults, Trump was the only candidate to validate the reality of these problems, which continue to dog our politics.

Philip Howard’s new book Everyday Freedom: Designing the Framework for A Flourishing Society explains why government functions so poorly and bureaucracy and litigiousness have become ubiquitous aspects of American life. It even dares to offer solutions. 

Everyday Freedom follows up on Howard’s landmark work on the damaging effects of public sector union organizing, Not Accountable: Rethinking the Constitutionality of Public Employee Unions, which appeared last year. Everyday Freedom is broader in scope though even briefer. Its essential premise is undeniable: Concurrent to the enormous growth of federal and state regulations has been a diminution of the authority of public officials to make simple decisions, and this has made it harder for ordinary people to participate in civil society and enjoy its blessings. A lawyer by profession, Howard focuses his story on jurisprudence in the post–Civil Rights era that assumes perfect justice as an aim and grants standing to any and all claimants who come before the court. It’s a critically important subject, and Howard presents his case skillfully in an elegant, cordial tone.

It's a familiar story: Heads of government agencies can’t fire lazy or indifferent civil servants, doctors retire early as they are beaten down by paperwork, teachers can’t discipline disobedient students. People avoid simple but needed decisions because they are terrified of lawsuits, and there is a pervasive lack of accountability. Howard shows this in a simple statistic. Over an eighteen-year period, Illinois averaged only two dismissals per year among its 90,000 tenured teachers. Moreover, in trying to remedy such problems, officials put forth absurd numbers of regulations and rules. The result for many people is a feeling of powerlessness and sullen rage.   

Yet this was predictable. Howard quotes Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation: “It is especially dangerous to enslave men in the minor details of life. . . . Subjection in minor affairs . . . does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will. Thus their spirit is gradually broken and their character enervated.” 

Having already detailed in Not Accountable how civil service rules and public employee unions make personnel reforms nearly impossible, Howard argues for solutions that circumvent this limitation. He strongly believes that public employee unions should be outlawed, that control of large swaths of government should be placed back in the hands of states and localities, and that judges must resume the older practice of routinely dismissing frivolous cases. But there are other elements of the problem worth pondering. 

One is our growth in population. Diversity™ militates against the shared norms that make consensus possible, and, without consensus, change of the gravity we require is infeasible. That is especially true for a nation whose elite has grown so complacent in its prosperity—a problem Montesquieu anticipated. 

The second element is even more consequential. Worship of government and blind faith in technocracy has arisen at a time of lessening religious faith and growing secularism. A self-reinforcing dynamic is at work: The moral deregulation that results from fewer people in pews demands expansion of government power to deal with the fallout; the intrusion of government into areas of life formerly mediated by religious institutions makes those institutions seem superfluous. The success of the early republic (in the face of such obstacles as territorial size and a linguistically and culturally heterogenous population) was owed to the mediation of religious institutions. It is an open question to what degree good policies like Howard’s can succeed in the absence of some measure of religious renewal.

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright.

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