Picks and Pans Review: The Death of Common Sense

UPDATED 03/20/1995 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/20/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

by Philip K. Howard

Red tape has become such a part of everyday life, it is not surprising that the mayor of Chicago spends 4,000 hours a year signing his name to forms, or that OSHA has 140 regulations for wooden ladders, or that renters can live rent free in New York City for 18 months before being evicted. No scissors seem sharp enough to cut through the tape, but The Death of Common Sense takes an important stab.

Howard, a Manhattan attorney, presents a compelling critique of "the law of government," regulations that fix potholes, run schools, regulate day-care centers, control behavior in the workplace and keep our environment clean. The tangle of rules set up to eliminate inconsistencies in these laws has created a bureaucracy that is rife with expense, delays and hypocrisy.

At a Long Island, N.Y., elementary school, children's art cannot be displayed on the walls because of the fire code. In Los Angeles the Veterans Administration reprimanded a research scientist for replacing a broken lawn mower. In Minnesota the municipal hockey rink was altered to make the scorer's box wheelchair-accessible. In Manhattan day-care centers, teachers are enjoined to comfort "a child in distress." In Pennsylvania a brick factory was cited for railings two and three inches shorter than the required 42-inch height.

Cataloging the abuses of the system leads Howard to an eloquent, if simplistic solution, a call for personal responsibility and initiative in government. But as history shows, common sense has not always been exercised by many elected or appointed officials, and Howard's suggestion that individual civil rights are too easily legislated will offend anyone stung by discrimination.

Still, The Death of Common Sense is a valuable book. The author's thoughtful arguments are impassioned, his research convincing. While many admit that the system is beyond repair, Howard concedes nothing. (Random House, $18)

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