Everyday Freedom: Designing the Framework for a Flourishing Society, by Philip K. Howard (Rodin Books, 128 pp., $15.83)

In a now-obscure 1960s BBC interview, Malcolm Muggeridge, the English satirist, journalist, and convert to anti-Communism (and later Christianity) declared: “I hate government. I hate power. I think that man’s existence, insofar as he achieves anything, is to resist power, to minimize power, to devise systems of society in which power is the least exerted.”

That sentiment of Muggeridge’s—the anti-authoritarian spirit of the 1960s—is the starting point of Everyday Freedom, the latest book by attorney and good-government advocate Philip Howard. Reformers of that era felt that biased individuals couldn’t be trusted with discretion. Those in power had given American society racial segregation and other forms of discrimination, destructive urban-renewal projects, and environmental costs that would be paid by future generations. The reformers believed that the way to prevent unfair and unjust outcomes was to limit and check authority.

But the worthy goal of limiting institutional power ran aground with the reformers’ emphasis on grievance and resolution. Howard chronicles how the discretion that had characterized an earlier mode of governance gave way to a new system of individual rights and impersonal rules. Dense rulebooks came to dictate the “one correct way” for workers to do every task. Formal processes constrained executives from disciplining employees and planning for new development. Expansive civil rights, and a bureaucracy designed to enforce them, added arrows of state power to the quiver of every student and individual suffering personal disappointment. The prospect of massive jury verdicts turned these rights into a “weapon for selfishness,” leading to absurdities like a $54 million case against a Washington D.C. dry cleaner for losing a customer’s pair of pants.

The government’s shift from discretion to bureaucracy resulted in the culture becoming more litigiousness and risk-averse, making Americans less able to take responsibility for daily decisions. Today’s government leaders can’t manage public workers without unions’ interference or undertake infrastructure projects without years of delays and huge cost overruns. Even teachers can’t discipline public school kids without the potential for drawn-out hearings. But while Howard has long sought a simpler and more cost-effective government, he has come to see that “the greater danger is not ineffective government, but the corrosion of American culture.”

In place of the can-do American spirit, the nation feels a sense of frustrated powerlessness. Conditioned by official expertise, people are increasingly unwilling to act on their intuitions. A culture of distrust—of authority, institutions, and fellow citizens—has untied strands of social capital and solidarity, making it harder to do business with one another and engage in a shared endeavor of citizenship.

After six decades of such erosion, Howard proposes rebuilding respect for authority on a bedrock of humanism: leveraging idiosyncratic human strengths and allowing hierarchy to check human weakness. Laws will provide general, commonsense principles, delimiting outer boundaries of acceptable behavior as a backstop while allowing people to accomplish tasks in their own ways.

In Howard’s world of personal agency, everyone is held accountable for his decisions. Lawmakers can’t shirk tough moral and policy choices by deferring to the current rule of rules. Managers and executives vested with firing power must cut ties with poor performers and ill-tailored personalities. Self-dealing will be unlawful, but people generally will interact and work without fear of legal repercussions. Broadly shared norms will reestablish a culture of trust and cooperation from local communities upwards.

At times, Howard’s commonsense humanism confounds today’s received wisdom. Better school performance, he contends, need not come at the price of glumly benchmarking students against objective metrics like standardized test scores. But neither should students or employees be protected from consequences for poor behavior, such as through legally mandated hearings. Instead, Howard proposes giving people what they need to transform their job into a vocation—the discretion to accomplish their ends well and a feeling of pride and meaning in their work. Better results should follow. If not, they’ll have the freedom to try something else.

Voters in both parties will likely recoil at Howard’s proposals to give government actors more discretion. Won’t public school teachers use their disciplinary power to stifle dissent from woke orthodoxies? What if they impede teaching about slavery, Jim Crow, and the experiences of gay Americans? Neither outcome is inevitable, provided that authorities are accountable and seek to reinforce majoritarian norms.

While Howard offers some concrete policy solutions, he does so in embryonic form, inviting readers to consider the details. For example, to revitalize local communities, he suggests providing direct funding and block grants to reputable local groups, conditioned on performance. And in the book’s final pages, he proposes that Congress “delegate the design of structures, area by area, to independent recodification commissions,” reminiscent of the legal consolidations of the Roman Emperor Justinian, Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Uniform Commercial Code.

Seeing Congress in such dysfunctional shape today, however, casts doubts on its ability to initiate a twenty-first-century American Corpus Juris Civilis. The legitimacy of such a recodification, and the authority of government officials in general, will first require more closely aligning the values of voting majorities with those of their representatives. Efforts like electoral reform thus appear essential to accomplish Howard’s goals, though he doesn’t discuss it here.

But whatever kinks need working out in Howard’s slender and persuasive volume, the status quo is untenable. To see how far rules have run amok, look no further than America’s exorbitantly expensive infrastructure or the massive university bureaucracies meant to ensure compliance with policies like diversity, equity, and inclusion and Title IX. By contrast, Howard notes, when exigency demands throwing out the rulebook, the seemingly impossible becomes reality. Pennsylvania governor Josh Shapiro rebuilt a collapsed stretch of I-95 in just 12 days. President Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed developed and mass produced Covid-19 vaccines months ahead of estimates.

Everyday Freedom calls on individuals, families, and communities to exercise newfound authority in the pursuit of flourishing lives. By the last page, the book acts as a mirror, staring back at readers with a challenging question: Are we ready to live up to the responsibilities of such freedom?

Photo: BRANDONJ74/E+ via Getty Images


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