Try Common Sense: Replacing the Failed Ideologies of Right and Left, by Philip K. Howard (W.W. Norton, 160 pp., $25.95)

Many people who detest monopolies nonetheless favor labor unions—a notable contradiction, given that unions constitute monopolies over the supply of workers. The conundrum is deepened with regard to public-employee unions, organizations whose goal is to produce monopolies within the government, an institution already devoid of competitors.

This puzzle is one of the principal subjects of Philip Howard’s important new book Try Common Sense, an expansion and follow-up to his widely lauded 1995 book, The Death of Common Sense, in which Howard, an attorney and the head of the nonprofit government-reform group Common Good, revealed how seemingly innocuous aspects of everyday life in the United States had come under attack by tortious litigation. In the new book, Howard broadens his scope to topics like the increasing influence of government-employee unions. He describes the origins of the American civil service, which date back to the country’s founding. Both James Madison and George Washington believed that the president must have ultimate responsibility for employment within the federal government, in order to preserve accountability. Andrew Jackson’s later introduction of the spoils system was not a rejection of this principle but an extension of it. Nonetheless, after the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881, reform of the spoils system aimed to improve the mechanisms of hiring. Howard rightly notes that mayors, governors, and presidents should retain broad powers to remove incompetent, unsavory, or negligent government workers. In this context, the very notion of public-employee unions is contradictory, as Franklin Roosevelt recognized: the public itself must serve as management against the workers.

Consider teachers’ unions. Citing a study by Stanford University researcher Eric Hanushek, Howard notes that bad teachers have a much greater negative effect on student performance than good teachers have a positive effect. Based on student-performance data, Hanushek’s study concluded that dismissing the worst 8 percent of American public school teachers would put American students on par with those of Finland, which has the highest-scoring students in the world. Yet it’s nearly impossible to fire tenured teachers. In Los Angeles, an effort to fire just seven notoriously bad instructors cost the city $3.5 million, and only got rid of four of the teachers.

Howard cites other examples of the same problem within the federal bureaucracy. A FEMA worker who used his position to get a flight out of Los Angeles right after a serious earthquake defended himself by saying that he did not want to lose his non-refundable airline tickets; he was not punished. The head of a Veterans Administration hospital in Phoenix was not held to account when it was revealed that employees were falsifying the length of patient wait times. In place of accountability, the government increasingly relies upon arbitrary implementation of rules and procedures.

A disenchanted member of the liberal establishment, Howard still believes in the vital necessity of government. But he sees the growth of government-employee unions as a major detriment to rational decision-making. When even incompetence or gross indifference can’t be the grounds for dismissal, employees believe that they have done their jobs if they insist on obedience to procedure, regardless of whether it is relevant or helpful. The effects spill over into the private sector, which is regulated by these administrative agencies.

Leaving aside citations and acknowledgements, Try Common Sense runs to barely more than 160 small pages. Its significance and scope, however, are the equal of much thicker books.

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