Friday, March 5, 2010

Friday TED Talk: Philip Howard on the Law Run Amuck -- and How to Fix It

Philip Howard is an attorney, just like yours truly. And just like yours truly, he is greatly dismayed by the degree to which legal considerations skew both our behavior and our institutions these days. He tells about how fear of legal consequences requires the practice of "defensive medicine", at a cost ($100 billion+) which would be sufficient to provide health insurance for every person in the United States not currently able to obtain coverage. He tells how education is stymied by threats of lawsuits against teachers -- simply for trying to maintain discipline in the classroom. And he describes how the environmental review process ("no pebble left unturned") has made it impossible for projects to be built, regardless of their merits.

The law, he says is (1) random, and it is random because (2) it is so detailed and convoluted that no one person, let alone ordinary judge or jury, can master its application to any given case. The result is arbitrary outcomes (such as we are witnessing in the current church property disputes), and a resultant undermining of the principles of a free society. I could not agree more.

I urge you to listen to his recipe for bringing us back from the tyranny of legalism, which grows in proportion to the degree that trust in the basic framework of society diminishes. The law must be judged by its effects on society as a whole, and not by its results for individual cases. "You can't run a society by the lowest common denominator," he says. And measured by that standard, the law is currently failing to achieve its purpose in spectacular fashion:

Here is a page with Philip Howard's bio and other links, such as to Common Good, a non-profit organization he formed to publicize specific proposals to make government and law more responsive to people's actual needs. And here is the page of Common Good's offshoot -- NewTalk, designed to promote dialogue toward achieving a better society under a rule of law that makes common sense. Here also is Philip Howard's homepage, with links to the books he has authored to date. You can watch his TED talk in high-resolution format from this link, and download his talk in that and other formats from this page.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating stuff.Did we not "start" with 10 simple commandments ? Yet, it did not take long for these 10 simple statements to be interpreted into hundreds of by Rabbis. Or am i mistaken??

    One problem is that many people DO NOT WANT to be responsible when you can force someone else to rectify your mistake with a simple lawsuit or even threat of a lawsuit. Those of us with a sense of responsibility are fewer and fewer with each generation.

    As we all know responsibility can not be legislated or forced by law. Don't have an answer to this huge conundrum.

    I do agree that the law could use simplification. Then it becomes an argument of who decides what to keep and what to jettison. Sigh.