Framing the Dialogue

The Death Of Common Sense

Death of common senseA had this book a while and thought that it would be a good one to follow The Law by Frederic Bastiat reviewed last week.  Although published fifteen years ago The Death of Common Sense provides a direct insight into the substitution of common sense for bureaucracy in America.  Common sense and responsibility is replaced with tens of thousands of pages of rules that promote inaction rather than progress.  Having worked for many years in government I can attest to the ability of civil servants to skillfully avoid decisions contrary to the letter of the regulation even though they make complete sense.

Author Philip K. Howard laments that;

“But that is not the way we have constructed our modern legal system.  We seem to have achieved the worst of both worlds:  a system of regulation that goes too far while it also does too little.  The paradox is explained by the absence of the one indispensable ingredient of any successful human endeavor:  use of judgement…we have constructed a system of regulatory law that basically outlaws common sense.  Modern law, in an effort to be ‘self-executing,’ has shut out our humanity.”

One of Howard’s first examples is OSHA (“Occupational Safety and Health Administration) started in 1970.  Occupational safety sounds like a no-brainer, but through 1994 OSHA had over 4,ooo regulations on the books, employed around 2,000 safety inspectors, and hundreds of billions (that’s right billions) spent by industry, safety in the workplace was about the same as it was when the agency was started.  As a safety manager for industry, I was intimately involved in compliance with OSHA standards. 

osha cowboyOne training course that was tailored specifically to my industry included a five inch binder as a guide and that did not include regulations.  I never had the pleasure of an OSHA inspection, but our company conducted their own audits.  One of the interesting things about working for a company with operations throughout the United States, we received compliance updates regarding inspections at our other facilities. 

One issue that stuck in my mind regarded power equipment.  When one of the cords for a drill or saw got a nick we were required to throw it away.  That we even if the nick did not expose the wires.  When I suggested a piece of electrical tape to cover the nick, I was told that if we were inspected, that would be like a beacon to an OSHA inspector.  It was easier to pitch the equipment.  I often wondered whether our mechanics “accidentally” nicked or pinched cords when they needed a new drill at home.

As you listen to politicians and pundits today establish new “rights” where none existed before, American is being pushed further toward collapse.  Howard remarks that, “rights have taken on a new role in America.  Whenever there is a perceived injustice, new rights are created to help the victims…these rights are intended as a new, and often invisible, form of subsidy.  They are provided at everyone else’s expense.”  How many of you are hearing from politicians that we have a “right to health care?”

I have to take a minute to take a breath.  Philip Howard provides many examples to raise your blood pressure.  I could go on and on, but you’ll just have to read the book yourself.  Even though The Death of Commonsense has a great deal of information, it is easy to read unless you prefer to keep your head buried in the sand.  I would like to finish this review with a few excerpts”

“One of the causes of homelessness (probably the third in importance, after mental illness and substance abuse) is the shortage of low-cost housing.  We made slums illegal and then, with our building codes, made it impossible to build low-cost housing.”  [we also closed the “cruel” mental institutions so that the mentally ill could be “mainstreamed.”]

fdaThe FDA undertakes its important task of monitoring new drugs and medical devices with such caution that approvals for new drugs in America occur an average of six years after they have been approved by other Western countries…the FDA staffers never have to take responsibility…it cannot be too careful.  But there is also a cost to denying patients new pharmaceuticals.”  [that which is seen – FDA “carefully deliberating new approvals; that which is unseen – patients dieing for need of the new drug]

“Processes designed for public participation have also taken on a life of their own…This was not the original point of participatory democracy.  In the New England town meeting…the idea is not that everyone be heard, but that everything is said that needs to be said.”

“Plato argued that good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will always find a way around law.  By pretending that procedure will get rid of corruption, we have succeeded only in humiliating honest people and provided a cover of darkness and complexity for the bad people.”

I did not have to look beyond the front page of today’s newspaper to get an example of government inaction.  Allegheny County (Pennsylvania) decided many years ago that they needed to build a bio-terrorism lab.  The newspaper article indicated that the opening of the lab is at least two years overdue and at least $2 million over budget.  Remember that this is a lab to help fight bio-terrorism and rapidly respond to biological threats (maybe H1N1?).  Two bureaucrats are quoted sniping at each other about the delay.

I will leave you with this from the book:

“Rights sound so righteous.  But the new rights aren’t at all:  They are blunt powers masquerading under the name of rights.  They have nothing to do with rights.  The rights of our forefathers died for are a shield – government can’t tell me what to do or say – to preserve our freedom from others ordering us around.  The new rights are a sword…these rights impinge on what others consider to be their own freedoms…it is called coercion.”  [emphasis added]

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