Does America Need a New Operating Philosophy?

Last week I met with one of my heroes, John Whitehead--veteran of D-Day, former Deputy Secretary of State, former co-head of Goldman Sachs, a leader of civic and cultural communities in New York, and universally admired for his integrity, wisdom, and grace.  (See Peggy Noonan's July 2008 Wall Street Journal column.)  John is a supporter of Common Good, the legal reform nonprofit that I chair, and was also indispensable, when he was Chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, in supporting the Tribute in Light memorial which I helped organize.


Our 75 minute discussion was far-reaching.  John is worried about the fiscal stability of our country, and thinks there's a real risk that investors may stop buying Treasury bonds.  He sees a country that lacks the political will to balance the budget because no one is willing to eliminate or adjust outdated and unaffordable programs (see my June 22nd post).  Subsidies and entitlements pile up over the decades until there's no money left to meet new needs.  He fears growing deficits will precipitate a crisis.


The discussion then turned to the strategy for Common Good.  We have a number of concrete initiatives that have gained traction among leaders in different fields, and he seemed encouraged that President Obama had written a letter to Congress specifically mentioning our proposal to create special health courts (developed jointly with the Harvard School of Public Health, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation).  Only when doctors trust justice to distinguish between good care and bad care will we have a chance of saving the $100-$200 billion per year that is wasted in defensive medicine.


But I've come to believe that concrete reforms in this or that area, while providing beacons for a new approach, aren't sufficient in themselves.  We could spend several lifetimes trying to prune the jungle of law and entitlements that have overgrown our society.  The bigger problem, I suggested to John, was that America has lost sight of the core principle of freedom--the power of each individual, at every level of responsibility, to make choices that adapt to current goals and circumstances.  Law has wrapped around every social interaction.  Doctors go through the day thinking about self-protection from lawsuits.  (See my July 2009 Washington Post op-ed.)  Teachers have lost control of the classroom because of the application of legal due process to ordinary disciplinary choices.  (See my March 25th Wall Street Journal op-ed.)  Governors and mayors are unable to balance budgets because of promises made by their predecessors.  (See former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan's May 5thWall Street Journal op-ed.)  Americans feel powerless to affect the world around them.  (See recent survey results from the Pew Research Center.)  The can-do society has become the no-can-do society.


The only way out of this rut, I think, is a popular movement to overhaul law and government to revive a time-honored operational principle--individual responsibility.  Schools cannot be expected to succeed if teachers don't have authority to maintain order.  Healthcare costs will never be contained until both patients and doctors have responsibility to be prudent in their use of healthcare resources.  Government will be unable to act prudently until legal stables are cleaned out so officials can make fresh choices to, say, balance the budget.  Accountability will be nonexistent until choices, public and private, are linked to identifiable individuals.  Nothing works unless individuals take responsibility to make it work.

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Philip K. Howard is a lawyer and author, and the chair of Common Good. He most recent book is The Rule of Nobody.

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