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Book Review: The Death of Common Sense

By August 22, 2003law practice

Philip K. Howard is a lawyer, and he has written a wonderful account of how screwed up our current legal system is entitled: The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America. The book chronicles how the legal system, which is theoretically supposed to facilitate legitimate transactions, often inhibits them. For example, the book opens with this gem.

The nuns of the Missionaries of Charity believed two abandoned buildings in New York City would make ideal homeless shelters. The city agreed and offered to sell the building for one dollar each. The result of this deal was that the community would get people dedicated to helping the homeless, and two abandoned and unsightly buildings would be converted into clean buildings inhabited by desirable tenants. A classic win-win situation, right?

Not exactly, because the city’s regulations required that multi-story buildings have elevators, which meant that the nuns would have had to spend close to a million dollars to outfit the buildings with elevators that would never be used. And the reason that they wouldn’t be used is the nuns had taken a special vow not to use mechanical devices. So the regulation was causing them to spend money they didn’t have to put in a mechanical device they would never use. The nuns were not able to get a waiver and so they couldn’t move into the abandoned buildings. And the neighborhood didn’t get a homeless shelter.

What had been a win-win situation turned into a lose-lose situation. This is but one example of how laws and regulations often frustrate, rather than facilitate, transactions that are completely desirable and beneficial. Every politician, every lawyer, every judge, and especially every citizen in America should read this book.

His more recent book, The Collapse of the Common Good is equally provacative and worthy of perusal.

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