Rules Can't Think: Why Government Needs Radical Simplification

The U.S. government has become a rusty pile of accumulated entitlements, endless forms, and overlapping programs.

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Joshua Roberts/Reuters

The rhetoric of both parties is tired and unconvincing. Of course, government should provide health care to those who can't afford it -- but we can't afford anything like the fee-for-service framework of Medicare and Medicaid. Yes, government is smothering teachers, doctors, and small business under too much bureaucracy -- but the solution is not wholesale "deregulation." We need clean air and water, and oversight over nursing homes and day-care centers.

America needs leadership for big change. Cutting the trillion-dollar annual deficit requires more than pruning the jungle. Liberating entrepreneurial energy requires more than monetary policy -- it requires an open field of opportunity instead of a legal tangle. To make the choices needed to restore solvency and create jobs, America needs a governing structure that can adapt to current needs.

No one would design the government we have now -- a rusty pile of accumulated entitlements, endless forms and approvals, overlapping programs, and legal rights that allow any disgruntled person to throw a monkey wrench into almost any public decision. Government is paralyzed for a reason. All this legal accretion prevents new choices. Armies of special interests are paid to keep it that way.

Solving the nation's most entrenched problems See full coverage

For six months, this series, America the Fixable, solicited essays from leading politicians, union heads, and experts from all sides. Not one suggested tweaking the system. Virtually every contributor talked about the need for major structural overhaul -- clear-cutting school bureaucracy, eliminating state impediments to nurses providing primary care, giving judges back authority to keep lawsuits reasonable, and many more fundamental changes. Many called for constitutional changes -- to put teeth into sunset laws, to create public campaign financing, and to eliminate the partisan structure in Congress.

Basic overhaul is not just an idea of experts. The public sees it clearly. Recent polling found that 81 percent of voters nationwide believe government in Washington is broken and needs basic overhaul. An overwhelming 87 percent of voters support periodic spring cleanings, expressing a belief that "there is a need for Congress to go through old laws, regulations, and programs on a regular basis to eliminate those that are no longer needed or that may not work as originally intended."

But politics is a lagging indicator, and the candidates will continue to offer the same tired bromides until the demand for change is crystallized in a new idea that people can rally behind. Wonky discussions on teacher evaluation and health insurance exchanges don't capture the public imagination.

I propose this as a mantra: radical simplification.

Simplifying government will allow humans to take responsibility again. This should be the litmus test: Does the person with responsibility have freedom to make a sensible judgment? If not, scrape away the rules until public goals are once again within reach of responsible officials. Then hold those officials accountable for their decisions.

Today, government is too dense for anyone to act sensibly, much less make a difference. Leadership is impossible, and often illegal. Accountability is nonexistent.

Simplification does not mean eliminating government oversight. It makes oversight better by allowing people to use their judgment. Rules can't think. Nor does it give tyrannical powers to officials. Checks and balances can safeguard against abusive decisions -- but these checks must also be based on judgment.

The formula for simplification is this: Replace thousands of rules with human responsibility and accountability. Real people, not rules, make things happen.

Simplification is radical. It requires overhaul at least as momentous as the changes in the 1960s. But simplification is not partisan. Do we have a choice? Nothing much about government works sensibly today. The public spigot is wide open, wasting almost as much as it is helping. America can't afford it. Everyone knows the structure must be rebuilt -- that's what this series reveals.

Ask yourself: Who can make the choices needed to fix the problems facing our society? The answer is no one. Every choice is tangled up in dense bureaucracy.

Forget about this or that reform. There are too many to discuss. America needs a bigger idea. Look to the Constitution, a document barely 15 pages long. It successfully safeguards our freedoms with only a few words, overseen by designated officials and judges.

Radically simplify government. Make law a framework of goals and principles, like the Constitution. Put real people in charge again. That's the only way we can confront our challenges, and the only way to overcome the current paralysis.

Presented by

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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