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He notes that in 1988, Australia got rid of detailed nursing home regulations (so many square feet per resident) and substituted general standards, including “homelike environment,” “privacy, and dignity.”

Academics who decried this reform were surprised to find that nursing homes improved under the new standards. Regulating by principles rather than rules replaced arguments and nitpicking with cooperative conversations and consensus.

Howard would like to reconstruct the federal government along similar lines. Laws with budgetary impact should sunset periodically, to prune the legal code of the underbrush planted by now-defunct legislators.

Presidents should be freed from the entanglement of detailed restrictions and 1970s legislation barring them from not spending funds and hamstringing advisory committees.

Judges should be empowered to dismiss invalid claims quickly. Someone should be given the authority to conclusively and speedily decide environmental issues. Congress should set up commissions to propose simplified legal codes on everything from education to entitlements to the environment.

Pretty radical stuff, and both liberals and conservatives will fear potential changes. The current president has low credibility and a demonstrated incapacity to compromise.

I’m not sure I’d trust Howard’s inevitably elite-dominated commissions. But his central insight — that ordinary Americans can be trusted to behave responsibly — is a good starting place in reforming government.

 
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