The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government – Q&A with Philip K. Howard

"All of life works on responsibility," says Philip K. Howard. "Everybody listening to this…has achieved what they've achieved in life because they took responsibility to make it happen. Government is no different than that."

In 1995, Howard wrote The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America, kicking off a national conversation about bureaucratic overreach and stupid regulations. In his new book, The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government, he extends and elaborates his analysis. It isn't bureaucratic gridlock or partisan polarization that's keeping Washington in perpetual mismanagement, argues Howard, but a fog of rules and regulations that has made it nearly impossible to figure out who is responsible.

Until civil servants can use common sense and practical judgement, he says, the government won't gain the flexibility needed for solving today's problems.

In a wide-ranging conversation with Reason's Nick Gillespie, Howard discusses many topics, including the following: the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's inability to quickly raise the height of the Bayonne Bridge to accommodate newer, taller ships (00:57); why even President Obama doesn't control the executive branch (5:37); why regulations haven't made nursing homes better (7:50); how even New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo couldn't shut down an unused juvenile detention center due to union rules (9:12); the long history of doctors gaming Medicare (10:31); why businesses are more flexible than governments (12:10); how technocratic views of government took over America; why mandatory minimums have led to abuse by prosecutors (18:42); specific reforms to shift from "automatic government" to individual responsibility (25:44); the goals of the Common Good Foundation (43:00); and the high probablitiy of "seismic change" in America's political culture (44:10).

About 45 minutes.

Shot by Jim Epstein and Joshua Swain. Edited by Swain.

Go to for downloadable versions and subscribe to Reason TV's YouTube Channel to receive automatic updates when new material goes live.

Read Gillespie's review of The Rule of Nobody.

The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government – Q&A with Philip K. Howard

30 thoughts on “The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government – Q&A with Philip K. Howard

  1. At 5:10 they talk about how the president does not have control over the
    administrative state. I was under the impression, however, that he only
    has control over the hiring and firing of the very top level executives
    i.e. secretaries. Therefore, he wouldn’t have much any control over things
    like the EPA, and for better or worse, it was designed that way. Can
    someone clarify?

    • Well, the better-designed agencies (so, not the EPA) are designed so that
      the President’s influence is split with Congress preventing any one entity
      from dominating its operations.

      For the worse agencies, having the influence of the President be limited
      probably sounds like a good idea, but if that influence isn’t
      counterbalanced by some other entity that links back to the people through
      elections or referenda, then what you end up with is an autonomous
      bureaucracy, which is an even greater threat to liberty than a Congress
      that disregards the Constitution. It’s hard to say exactly what was the
      intention of those original designers, but regardless of intention, this is
      a serious flaw in the design.

  2. Most Tea Party folks are constitutionalists. I wish they wanted no
    government. Mr. Howard wants an independent commission to review laws
    because Congress can’t be trusted to do it? How about we keep the
    commissions and get rid of Congress? These could be private commissions
    who could only exist if the public willingly subscribed to their rules for
    a fee. If you don’t like their rules, no need to organize a march, just
    cancel your service and switch to a competing commission. 

    • he even acknowledged that all government schemes are broken… still he
      would keep them and only hire more bureaucraps to “manage” them “better”…
      I say: magical thinking 🙂 There is no “independent” commissions…

    • +Xenthoid
      indeed – most people must still break out of their mental chains of
      statism… For some it’s a religion – even more difficult to deny it 🙁

    • The problem with our government isn’t a partisan issue; both parties have
      passed worthless, failed “bipartisan” laws and programs that have fleeced
      the American public for trillions of dollars….

  3. There is no greater regulator than the free market … if only we actually
    had one. Corporations as we know them today can not exist in a free market.
    The reason corporations are so powerful, and we “need regulation” to
    protect us from them is because the government is already protecting them
    from us.

    Because of government regulations, corporations enjoy “limited liability”
    as well as a list of other legal advantages which individual citizens do
    not enjoy. It is this list of advantages which allow them to grow so large,
    and gain such influence. Strip away all of their legal protection, and they
    would have to compete on a level playing field. They would be held FULLY
    LIABLE for all harm done to their customers, their employees, and to the

    People love to blame corporations, but it is the power of GOVERNMENT which
    makes them dangerous. Get the government completely out of the market, and
    the market will regulate itself. In order to succeed in a free market, a
    company must offer the best product, at the best price, while causing no
    harm. Competition between marketeers keeps prices low and quality high,
    while fear of liability keeps their operation safe.

    • +Keenan Webb
      All forms of “incorporation” hold some degree of limited liability, or
      legal buffer, which shields the operators of the business, to one extent or
      another, from prosecution. These legal protections effectively redirect
      lawsuits away from the operators which make the choices and act in the
      market, and to the corporate entity name, which isn’t really a person and
      doesn’t care. If the corporation is harmed or bankrupted by prosecution,
      the operators can simply close shop, and open an identical business under a
      new corporate name, never having had to personally pay the full cost of
      damages they might have caused to the market.

    • +ZombieTex So, it’s not really ‘corporations’ who have the advantages, but
      the owners of the corporations, then?
      Corporations are no different than government. Both are human
      organizations full of humans who are fallable. I wish both weren’t so
      large and powerful.

  4. This is a great interview. Gillespie asks the questions I want asked
    despite insisting on dressing like a middle-aged biker dude. I think if he
    put on a tie his interviews would easily be 20% more effective.

    Well done Nick and Philip, I shared the video and ordered the new book.

    • “Philip K Howard has always struck me as an eminently reasonable,
      articulate advocate for common sense solutions. No wonder no one listens to
      him.” (Jon Stewart, The Daily Show)

  5. We should be thankful that bureaucracies are formed. Without bureaucrats
    and bureaucratic rules, all government actions would be done with
    discretion. You can’t allow discretion with government operations. Why?
    Because they are the only provider of that particular activity. The
    customer for the government is not the one they serve. Thus there’s no
    market process for destroying those that don’t serve customers. Discretion
    can be allowed where the customer is king.

  6. Wait, the Tea Party wants to get rid of government altogether? OK, this
    shows he is not in touch with reality.

  7. Mr. Howard, how about restoring the constitution? Article V gives the state
    governments a clear, constitutional path to taking back power from those
    who have made the constitution into something it was never meant to be,
    using legal tricks, judges who have no virtue, etc.

  8. It takes so much awareness, and then the guts to tell the truth to make the
    world wake up. So proud of you for this video.

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