A fail-safe society is sure to fail

When are we going to trust our fellow Americans again? When are we going to allow qualified individuals with responsibility to make decisions without consulting detailed rulebooks and formal procedures?

Those are questions New York lawyer and author Philip K. Howard asks in his latest mini-tome “Everyday Freedom.”

The book comes just as the federal government is grappling, under the glare of national publicity, with the need to replace the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which fell into the main channel of Baltimore’s harbor after being hit by a 984-foot-long container ship bereft of electric power.

The bridge, completed in 1977, took five years to design and build. Initial estimates are that it could take 18 months to several years to replace, or more if it were redesigned or replaced by a tunnel.

The book’s lessons are relevant. Once upon a time, Americans knew how to build things rapidly and well. The Empire State Building was constructed by a syndicate headed by John J. Raskob and former New York Gov. Al Smith in one year and 45 days in 1930-31.

Government could build fast, too. Gen. Brehon Somervell led New Deal Works Progress Administration workers in building LaGuardia Airport in months, then completed construction of the Pentagon (designed over a long weekend) within 15 months in 1941-43. It took a direct hit on 9/11, and until 2023 was still the largest office building in the world.

In contrast, the Biden administration’s much ballyhooed $5 billion 2021 program to encourage electric vehicles has produced exactly eight charging stations. What would Somervell say?

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has taken to citing “The Power Broker,” and his department has cited Jane Jacobs, author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” He seems less interested in dismantling the impediments to decisive action that Howard describes.

The ’60s legal revolution was intended to “protect individuals against unfair or biased decisions by supervisors,” Howard writes, by reformers painfully aware of such decisions in the past. But “weakening individual authority had the paradoxical effect of weakening the freedoms and opportunities of individuals. Protocols replaced initiative. Behavior codes replaced spontaneity.”

Americans are, or should be, learning the lesson that trying to create a fail-safe society in fact creates a society that is sure to fail. The way out is to clean the Augean stables, to get rid of the tangled mess of requirements and statements and paperwork, and let competent people get things done.

This is what Pete Wilson, former Republican governor of California, did after the Northridge earthquake destroyed Los Angeles’ Interstate 10 in 1994. He ditched the rules and provided penalties for late work and premiums for finishing ahead of time. The project, estimated to take two years, was completed in two months and two days.

And it’s what Josh Shapiro, Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, did when a truck accident destroyed an overpass on Interstate 95 in Philadelphia. Shapiro suspended all regulations that “would in any way prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action.” The highway was reopened in 12 days.

The obvious importance of the I-10 and I-95 arteries in Los Angeles and Philadelphia made the two governors’ decisions widely popular. But unbeknownst to the public, the legal thicket created in the ’60s imposes enormous opportunity costs every day on a society that doesn’t have the public infrastructure or private developments its officials and entrepreneurs want to provide. In “Everyday Freedom,” Howard tells us we can do better.


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