Here’s Philip Howard in the Wall Street Journal:
Americans don’t feel free to reach inside themselves and make a difference. The growth of litigation and regulation has injected a paralyzing uncertainty into everyday choices. All around us are warnings and legal risks. The modern credo is not "Yes We Can" but "No You Can’t." Our sense of powerlessness is pervasive. Those who deal with the public are the most discouraged. Most doctors say they wouldn’t advise their children to go into medicine. Government service is seen as a bureaucratic morass, not a noble calling. Make a difference? You can’t even show basic human kindness for fear of legal action. Teachers across America are instructed never to put an arm around a crying child.Read the whole thing.
The idea of freedom as personal power got pushed aside in recent decades by a new idea of freedom -- where the focus is on the rights of whoever might disagree. Daily life in America has been transformed. Ordinary choices -- by teachers, doctors, officials, managers, even volunteers -- are paralyzed by legal self-consciousness. Did you check the rules? Who will be responsible if there’s an accident? A pediatrician in North Carolina noted that "I don’t deal with patients the same way any more. You wouldn’t want to say something off the cuff that might be used against you."
Update: By way of connecting Howard’s point to the question of the size and scope of government, Megan McArdle explains where the rules come from:
Private web development is far--far, far, far, FAR--from perfect, of course. But government IT is worse than, IMHO, it has to be. It’s not, as some conservatives would have it, that government professionals are inherently incompetent.
It’s that government systems treat them as if they are incompetent. That a) selects for the actually incompetent and b) insures that change or creativity are near-impossible.
This is because we treat every issue not as problems for agencies to work on, but something that must be covered by A RULE. You cannot trust the Social Security Administration to care whether disabled people have access, so you have to mandate it. And if that clumsily drawn mandate cuts off ten other features that would help people access social security information, well . . . DIDN’T YOU SEE THERE’S A RULE????!!!
P.S. I don’t actually know any conservatives who think the way McArdle suggests. It might be true, however, that certain people seem to say that because one does not always have time to provide the full explanation.