Philip Howard,

W.W. Norton;

256 pages, $23.95

A generation ago, after a series of horrible scandals, Australia ditched hundreds of detailed rules governing nursing homes. Instead of insisting, for example, that they should offer at least 80 square feet of floor area per resident, the government set broad principles. Care homes were told to offer a "homelike environment" and to respect residents' "privacy and dignity."

Philip Howard, an American lawyer and campaigner for better governance, records the alarm that this triggered among regulatory experts. Yet alarm turned to surprise. Australian nursing homes improved measurably, as staff and owners were freed to think for themselves, rather than blindly following checklists.

Howard's new book, "The Rule of Nobody," is a plea for the United States to embrace the same sort of broad, principles-based regulation, allowing officials and judges more leeway to use their discretion, common sense and compassion. Howard offers a sad catalog of current bureaucratic follies, such as the many unneeded tests and procedures for retired Americans covered by Medicare. Howard writes of public subsidies that were created to help Depression-era family farmers, which have since been grabbed by giant agribusinesses that now seem unwilling to give them up.

"The Rule of Nobody" is evenhanded in its politics, noting that both right and left have saddled America with overly detailed regulations. One root of the problem is mistrust, Howard suggests. Conservatives distrust public employees and so seek to limit their powers of discretion. The left thinks that business bosses will run amok unless bound.

The book's weakness — a forgivable one — may be its optimism. The author concedes that mighty forces are arrayed against change. But he insists that the political system in Washington is really a "house of cards." A reform movement with an accurate indictment and a credible plan "can push it over." Alas, the real-world Washington feels less fragile than rotten.