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The Death of Common Sense: How Law Is Suffocating America Paperback – January 13, 1995

112 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0679429944 ISBN-10: 0679429948 Edition: 1st

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Business agreements in the U.S. typically run to several hundred single-spaced, typewritten pages; in Switzerland, the same documents might be 10 pages. Charging that American law has become "the world's thickest instruction manual," New York City attorney Howard blasts excessively detailed, rigid government regulations that leave no room for judgment or discretion. He cites as examples occupational safety rules that fail to distinguish among different workplace situations, environmental laws that prove counterproductive and a "drive toward mandated perfection" that has stymied affordable day care and housing. He also lambastes overly complex procedural rules that stifle individual initiative, whether the task involves repairing a bridge, hiring a new employee or fixing a lock in a public school. A cogent brief for legal common sense and balance.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

The nuns of the Missionaries of Charity believed two abandoned buildings in New York City would make ideal homeless shelters. The city agreed and offered to sell the building for one dollar each. Yet the shelter project faltered: the city's bureaucracy imposed such expensive remodeling requirements on the buildings that the shelter plans were scrapped. To Howard, an attorney practicing in New York City, this is but one of many examples of the law's suffocating Americans by extensive decrees on what may and may not be done. His book is truly a catalog of horror stories, actually quite engrossing and adding to the story of public inefficiencies chronicled by David Osborne's Reinventing Government (Addison-Wesley, 1992). What Howard does not do as well, however, is offer guidance on remedies. His answer seems to be that we should take personal responsibility, gather up our courage, and step out into the sunlight away from government's shadow. More highly recommended as a study of the negative impact of law is Walter K. Olson's The Litigation Explosion (LJ 2/15/91) even though its focus is on lawsuits and the courts.
Jerry E. Stephens, U.S. Court of Appeals Lib., Oklahoma City
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 202 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (January 13, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679429948
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679429944
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.8 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (112 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #940,125 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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110 of 120 people found the following review helpful By Charles G. Hardin, on February 24, 1999
Format: Paperback
Philip Howard's insights help us understand why government appears arbitrary, almost never able to deal with real-life problems in a way which reflects an understanding of the situation. Peppered with pointed anecdotes about absurd regulatory inflexibility and the lack of the use of judgement, Howard's book reveals that we have concocted a system of regulation that "goes too far while it does too little."
In the decades since WWII, specific legal mandates designed to keep government in check have proliferated. The result is not better government, but more and poorer government. In a free society, we are supposed to be free to do what we want unless it is prohibited. But highly detailed regulations proscribing exactly what to do turn us toward centralized uniformity, Howard says, where law has replaced humanity. Detailed rules and uniform procedures have nonuniform effects when applied to specific situations.
Our old system of common law recognized the particular situation and invited the application of common sense. Common law evolved with the changing times and its truth was relative, Howard tells us, not absolute. But in this century statutes have largely replaced common law, and in recent decades regulations have come to dominate the legal landscape. Howard observes that the Interstate Highway System (still the nation's largest public works program) was authorized in 1956 with a 28-page statute. Now, we attempt to cover every situation explicitly. He cites one contract lawyer who received a proposed definition of the words and/or that was over three hundred words in length. (Let alone the more recent and prominent lawyer who parsed carefully over the definition of what the word "is" is.
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62 of 70 people found the following review helpful By Steven Fantina on October 26, 1999
Format: Paperback
New York City laws forbidding Mother Theresa from opening a two-story homeless shelter unless she installs an elevator. A 33 page manual describing the qualifications and uses of a hammer. Contract bidding procedures that unintentionally but blatantly encourage corruption.
These snippets sound like lines from a Letterman or Leno monologue, but discouragingly they are all actual government dictates documented in this chilling expose. Phillip Howard does an admirable job of identifying the consequences when good-hearted bureaucrats create well-intentioned regulations, and government services get caught in a stranglehold.
Perhaps even more bilious than these splenetic monuments to red tape, are the huge work forces of administrators who are imprisoned by this uncontrollable system. Howard employs some macabre humor in redacting the plight of one troublesome government employee who purchased a lawn mower with his own money rather than navigate the labyrinth of paperwork necessary to order a replacement. For this breech of procedure, he earned a formal demerit.
Although the subject matter is serious and in deed frequently depressing, Howard often utilizes jocular techniques to make his point. His step by step specifications of NYC's contract bidding ritual would be the envy of any stand-up comic. Unfortunately, the laughing stops upon the realization that this vapid inefficiency is pandemic throughout all levels of our government. It's scary to see just how big Big Brother has become.
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37 of 41 people found the following review helpful By J. Lizzi on July 19, 2002
Format: Paperback
I wouldn't agree with the categorization of this book as an "explosive manifesto" (back cover), nor would I call this "incendiary ... stimulating" (front cover). As an American who too often cringes when our country's regulatory red tape strangles expediency and constructive decision making, I'd say "The Death of Common Sense" offers some poignant anecdotes in describing today's bureaucratic morass. Beyond this, author Philip K. Howard documents well the mentality which has spawned our dependency and passivity, and how we can refocus on how democracy is supposed to function.
Mr. Howard's messages, evident throughout, are very obvious: we have substituted innovation with process, created enemies instead of cooperative societies, and squashed case-by-case reasoning under mountains of procedural law. There are so many "rights" covering every interest group that very little gets done for the benefit of the majority. "Trusting in the law" now means being wary of nearly everyone. Although sounding a bit rant-stricken at times, Mr. Howard offers up lots of food for thought ... some amazing stories. It's all pretty interesting and easy to read.
In my opinion, the last (and shortest) of the book's four parts, entitled "Releasing Ourselves," falls short of hitting on a way to get out from under suffocating law. I agree that initiative and responsibility are admirable attributes for executives in both the public and private arenas, and further, that universally applied policies that regulate the most minute procedural detail should instead have flexibility for more real-world applications. However, what happens when the most innovative of directives winds up injuring or killing someone? Will Joe Citizen give up his right (there's that word) to sue? I doubt it.
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