Defining the American Dream

Personal Responsibility

Posted on Friday, September 24, 2010

Op-Ed Columnist NYT
The Responsibility Deficit
By DAVID BROOKS

One of the oddities of the current moment is that the country wants a radical change in government but not a radical change in policy.



On the one hand, voters are completely disgusted with Washington. On the other hand, they have not changed their fundamental views on the issues. There has been some shift to the right over the past two years, but the policy landscape looks mostly the way it did over the last few decades. We’re still a closely divided nation; it’s just that we’re angrier about it.

The result is that over the next two years we’ll probably see gridlock on stilts. The energized Republicans will try to reduce the size of government, but they won’t be able to get their bills past President Obama. The surviving Democrats will try to expand government programs, but they will run smack into a closely divided Senate and possibly a Republican-controlled House.

Unable to do anything in the short term, both parties will devote their energies to nothing but campaign gestures for 2012. The rhetoric will fly. Childishness will mount. Public nausea will hit an all-time high.

Somewhere in the country, though, there is a politician who is going to try to lead us out of this logjam. Whoever that person is, I hope he or she is listening carefully to what the public is saying. Because when you listen carefully, you notice the public anger doesn’t quite match the political class anger. The political class is angry about ideological things: bloated government or the predatory rich. The public seems to be angry about values.

The heart of any moral system is the connection between action and consequences. Today’s public anger rises from the belief that this connection has been severed in one realm after another.

Financiers send the world into recession and don’t seem to suffer. Neighbors take on huge mortgages and then just walk away when they go underwater. Washington politicians avoid living within their means. Federal agencies fail and get rewarded with more responsibilities.

What the country is really looking for is a restoration of responsibility. If some smart leader is going to help us get out of ideological gridlock, that leader will reframe politics around this end.

Philip K. Howard has thought hard about the decay of responsibility and what can be done to reverse it. In a series of books ranging from “The Death of Common Sense” to “Life Without Lawyers,” Howard has detailed the ways our political and legal systems undermine personal responsibility.

Over the past several decades, he argues, a thicket of spending obligations, rules and regulations has arisen, which limits individual discretion, narrows room for maneuver and makes it harder to assign responsibility.

Presidents find that more and more of their budgets are precommitted to entitlement spending. Cabinet secretaries find that their agenda can’t really be enacted because 100 million words of existing federal rules and statutes prevent innovation this way and that. Even when a new law is passed, it’s very hard to tell who is responsible for executing it because there is a profusion of agencies and bureaucratic levels all with some share of the pie.

These things weaken individual initiative, discretion and responsibility. But the decay expands well beyond Washington. Teachers don’t really control their classrooms. They have to obey a steady stream of mandates that govern everything from how they treat an unruly child to the way they teach. Doctors don’t really control their practices but must be wary of a capricious malpractice system that could strike at any moment. Local government officials don’t really govern their towns. Their room for maneuver is sharply constrained by federal mandates and by the steady stream of lawsuits that push them in ways defying common sense.

What’s needed, Howard argues, is a great streamlining. He’s not calling for deregulation. It’s about giving teachers, doctors and officials the power to actually make decisions and then holding them accountable. Some of their choices will be wrong, Howard acknowledges, but it is better to live in an imperfect world of individual responsibility than it is to live within a dehumanizing legal thicket that seeks to eliminate risk through a tangle of micromanaging statutes.

Howard proposes expanding specialized health courts, which would be more predictable than the malpractice system. He would lift controls on teachers and civil servants — giving them more freedom but then ending tenure and holding them accountable. He would create commissions to eliminate obsolete laws. He would expand judges’ discretion and end mandatory sentencing.

Howard’s agenda raises some thorny issues. But he has seized the crucial theme of the moment. If bad government undermines responsibility then it should be restructured. And he’s offering one tool a creative politician could use to break through the logjam and help us avoid a truly awful few years.


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