Philip Howard addresses the problems of democracy at a Tocqueville Program event


The Potenziani Program in Constitutional Studies and bridgeND sponsored a lecture by Philip K. Howard, author and founder of the bipartisan organization Common Good, entitled “Can American Government be Fixed?: How We Lost Authority to Govern Ourselves and What to do About It”. Some of his works include “Life without Lawyers,” “The Collapse of the Common Good,” “The Rule of Nobody,” and “The Death of Common Sense.”  The Rover had the opportunity to interview Howard prior to his visit.

Irish Rover: In your TEDTalk you stated that society cannot be run by the lowest common denominator.  Would you explain what the denominator is in the context of post-modern society?

Howard: In society, people have a different idea of fairness.  You can’t do what everybody wants … there’s a trade off.  To move forward, you have to make choices.  We’ve created a society in which these choices are increasingly more difficult to make.  From the federal to the granular level—including the medical field and that of education—there is a formal process that we have to go through which holds progress to a standstill.

Do you believe that such a standstill is a result of political gridlock in the two-party system?

I think the polarization is a symptom of powerlessness.  People believe we need less polarization and need to compromise.  The problem here is that divisions of each interest group come together and jump off a fiscal cliff holding hands.  What has happened in the past thirty years is that the amount of laws has doubled, and the people in Washington have given up at accomplishing anything, including balancing the budget.  When you feel disempowered, all you can do to compete is point fingers.  People blame the other side even though the other has no picture of fixing it.  You can’t put America on the right track until you clean out all the legal thickets that prevent everyone from the White House on down to the school house from making sensible decisions.  You must have freedom to take responsibility to fix these legal thickets.

Was it for this reason that you created the bipartisan, non-profit organization Common Good?

One of the most powerful forces in culture are those who have moral authority, which is hard to find.  The ambition for Common Good is to bring Americans such as Al Simpson and Howard Bradley together behind proposals for overhaul to restore America’s diminishing idea of common sense.

You established four propositions in order to restore America’s common good in legislative practices.  Your fourth proposition included restoring order to judges.  By restoring such order, would this shift the role of power allocated to the judicial branch from the Constitution’s original intent?

By restoring order to the judges, authority will rest where it should.  Today, the judiciary accesses the coercive powers of the state; if judges don’t assert what is reasonable under social norms, everybody will be compelled to sue for everything.  Pretty soon, there will be no see-saws or diving boards in recreational facilities because of the risk that whoever operates them will be sued.  If judges do not assert authority, we will lose our freedom.

Can the same be said of public officials?

You’re exactly right.  When the law is so detailed that you have tens of thousands of pages of legislation, no one can comply with it.  An effort to create this is completely self-defeating.  Today, no one can comply with the literal rules of so many pages of law.

What do you intend to accomplish in government through your TEDTalk, Common Good, books, and lectures such as this?

We are getting a movement started—there needs to be a dramatic expansion of the public narrative.  The need to restore human control over government and human freedom in our daily lives. If we are not free to ask the question “What is the right thing to do?” as a citizen or public official, then there is something wrong with the legal system.  Today, everyone is trained not to ask the question “What is right?”, but to ask instead, “What does the rule require?” or even “Will somebody sue if I do this?”  Law, instead of protecting freedom, has replaced our freedom.


Tierney Vrdolyak is a freshman studying PLS and some form of business.  Although she is indecisive in the ways of choosing a major, she can in fact decide what pattern of socks to don on a daily basis.  If you need help deciding what socks to wear tomorrow, contact Tierney at