by Eileen | 7:08 pm, February 18, 2013 | Comments Off
Cass Sunstein is the sort of man who fills you with loathing and moral revulsion after a single sentence, a power-hungry regulatory motherfucker who mere existence proves we have left Eden. I have keenly anticipated his last book from the moment he published his first. He’s like your mother, except there’s no need to pretend he doesn’t exasperate and belittle you. Also, at the end of the day, your mother does love you. Cass Sunstein wants to run your life because, in a real and visceral way, he hates you.
Sunstein is best known for the concept of ‘Libertarian Paternalism’ and, if that sounds like a contradiction in terms, it is. If libertarianism may be boiled down to one, central precept, it is that adults may do as they please so long as they don’t harm others. Morally, the philosophy is based on the concept of autonomy and, as any competent ethicist will tell you, the principle of autonomy explicitly holds that it is more important to respect the right of individuals to run their own lives than to ensure the ‘optimal’ choice is made in all cases. ‘Paternalism’, on the other hand, is defined by arrogating to oneself the ‘right’ to make choices for another adult on the presumption that you can do better, that her freedom matters less than reaching a preordained end.
To suppose that the two can ever go together is absurd, and Sunstein knows better. He’s a Paternalist through and through, but he’s also clever enough to modify what he really wants to do with a misused word. Hey, he’s just suggesting a modification on true libertarian principles, nothing radical or questionable, here, kids. There are already real-world constraints on the range of options any given actor has in making any given choice. What’s one, or a thousand more? To listen to Sunstein, government imposition of ends is only qualitatively different from the acknowledged existence of existing conditions when making a choice.
Holding that adults may make their own choices speaks, obviously, to a respect for individuals, to their freedom, to their dignity, to their primacy. Individuals have rights and dignity and freedom even when they irritate us. Autonomy is also about privacy; it is not my right, nor that of anyone else, to peer into your private life and audit your decision making process. I don’t get to second guess your choices or demand that you disclose your inner thoughts and dreams so that I may assess if your choice was ‘wise’. You don’t have to justify yourself to me. All I need to know is that it was your choice and you made it. And I may rightly demand the same of you.
Here is a beautiful arrangement. Yet it enrages paternalists like Sunstein, who want to control others as an end in itself. Like all collectivists, Sunstein implicitly presumes certain things: it is possible to perfectly know every variable at once, there is a single optimal state of affairs for everyone, the pursuit of the ‘ideal’ society trumps individuals and their rights. Or so go the standard tropes of state control. In practice, the powerful figures in collectivist states are certainly fixated on knowing as much as possible as people, but that is to effect yet further control. It has nothing to do with making a decision in the best interest of the individual most affected. The man who proposes to make your choices for you is not only not centrally focused on your good; you may be sure it’s the one thing he doesn’t care in the least.
Sunstein then makes the mistake that all champions of the state over the human make: he imagines that he will belong to the ruling class in his perfect society and that he will be exempt from the rules he makes for others. In the end, no one wants to live under socialism; there are only those who want to inflict socialism on others and those who like humanity.
For real libertarians, the impulse to control for the sake of controlling is fundamentally impossible to grasp, though it is on display everywhere you look. Lots and lots of people are really into the idea of controlling those around them. The libertarian answer to this is to give the state just enough power to prevent the control freaks from imposing themselves on others. Cass Sunstein belongs to a radically different class who see the state as a vehicle for paternalists to dictate the most mundane and the most intimate choices to perfect strangers.
Sunstein is also, make no mistake, a bought and paid for lackey of the Obama Administration. It is for that reason – cui bono – that I doubt the appearance of a mid-length article regurgitating paternalistic talking points is mere happenstance. Even if it is, technically, a book review, the article expends so many words touting Sunstein’s paternalism that, by the time he mentions the title under review, one has quite forgotten that one is reading literary criticism and not a tepid policy memo. Last week’s State of the Union was a deadening, monotone hymn to the powerful, centralized state as panacea. As is his trademark style, the President offered up breathtaking expansion of government as the obvious and unquestionable solution; as he would have us believe, the only issue at all is to iron out the logistics, and that will be done by our betters, behind closed doors.
As Obama moves forward on gun control plans that will annihilate the Second Amendment and gutting of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments ostensibly necessitated by ‘national security’, his troops are hard at work on selling the underlying ideology. To describe Obama’s doctrine in a sentence, ‘You don’t know well enough to govern your own life, but I do.’ Buttressing such audacious and smug hijacking of government is Cass Sunstein, whose latest minor opus aims to undercut the argument for letting people live their own lives.
Plainly, Cass Sunstein for Obama is selling Cass Sunstein for Obama, and the book he reviews, Sarah Conly’s Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism, is drafted in to show us how many clever people support him. Of course, a woman who would title a book Against Autonomy probably doesn’t mind being so used.
Sunstein’s tone, here as in everything he scribbles for public consumption, is paternalistic in its very tone; the language itself is juvenile and simple, the tone is redolent of a bored and pained parent making a final attempt to explain something to her child before giving up altogether. One gets the sense that, if questioned, Mr. Sunstein would manage only a few words through gritted teeth before peeling off “Because I said so! Now, go to your room!”
The first quarter of the essay makes the tedious case that adults sometimes make choices that lead to poor outcomes, that don’t make sense in retrospect, or that baffle outside observers, and all in a tone that indicates Sunstein thinks he’s explaining this to people utterly unfamiliar with the concept. In his mind, not only are the rest of us too dumb to make our own choices, we’re too dumb to realize how astoundingly dumb we are.
What he does not even suggest is that people make the choice that makes the most sense at the time with the information available to them. No one ever deliberately screws herself over. Every person is doing her best at all times, given the real constraints of her situation and the information available. People aren’t stupid; they’re rational, and rationing.
At some length, Sunstein gripes about ‘heuristics’, mental shortcuts that we all take in our decision making, at a subconscious and nearly instantaneous level. Heuristics do explain a lot about some of the most common fallacies people make, but the entire human race has them hardwired in, and someone as obsessed with choices as Sunstein ought to be asking why that is. Of course, he knows all the research on the prevalency of heuristics, but he chooses not to share it with us. After all, he’s controlling our choices and artificially modifying the field. Briefly, the human brain uses certain rules of thumb and past experience to make future choices and to act quickly because that’s the efficient thing, because it pays off far more frequently than it fails. Heuristics aren’t evil things that must be excised or overridden by wise dictators; they have evolved for a reason.
Taking the time and cost to gather and assess facts exhaustively is often not a viable path. With small choices, it’s nonsensical for a rational actor to obsess and over-analyze. In a crisis, time matters gravely. A choice delayed too long itself becomes a choice to do nothing. Decisions are often difficult; trying to define and choose the lest objectionable of multiple, bad options or trying to forecast which of competing, attractive options will have the happiest outcome. Choices, especially central choices, are rarely so stark as an ice cream sundae or a stick in the eye. There are tradeoffs in anything; the well-paying job with benefits is less fun than working for peanuts at a startup, buying a home means spending your liquid savings and tying yourself to a location, major medical treatment is painful and the outcome is uncertain. Sunstein would say that people who take the lower-paying job, who keep renting, who forgo medical treatment are childish, unthinking and falling into dangerous fallacies.
Ah, but what if our hypothetical decision maker has no one else to provide for, can live on a start-up salary, and chooses to take a risk now for the sake of a fulfilling job and the possibility of a hefty pay-off? What if she thinks there are better investment opportunities for her savings than real estate, doesn’t want the responsibility and extra chores of home ownership, or anticipates moving in the near future? What if she is well aware of the severity of her medical situation, well aware of the low chance that a given course of treatment will work for her, and is opting to maximize the time left to her?
In addition to accepting that we frequently don’t know what we’re talking about when we judge another person’s decision, we must accept that we commit the historian’s fallacy when we judge a decision made in the past by the present day reality, when we condemn others for not using information they could not possible have had when they made their choice. Because a risk failed is not proof that is was not a risk worth taking. Because a situation soured is not proof that every action leading to the outcome was wrong. Sometimes, a questionable choice has an inexplicably lucky result. Sometimes good things happen to bad, or reckless, people. The Cass Sunsteins of the world are fine with that. What they struggle against is the equally true and inseparable opposite: sometimes bad things happen to good people; sometimes, a solid and thoughtful decision doesn’t work out. That’s the half of the equation that, to dip into the vernacular, just sucks. The solution to that is not to declare a war on individuals making their own choices. And it certainly is not to blame people for the outcomes by removing the ability to exercise free will.
That’s not an overstatement of what Sunstein wants. He and his have decided what the ends ought to be and they mean to have those ends. They’ll accept the easiest way to get there, but they will get there. If they can con us into thinking we’re making our own choices, that’s fine. But, and this is the point, Cass Sunstein wants to predict the outcomes for others and he will utterly deny freedom to choose is that’s what it takes.
Sunstein, who is unjustly fond of touting logical fallacies as justification for his paternalism, commits a fallacy of his own, a particular double standard. He belongs to a stripe that likes to excuse anyone from every accepting blame for anything; it’s a political tactic. Intangible forces and various malevolent actors known only as ‘they’ are behind all the world’s woes. No one who got soaked when the market crashed in 2008 bears any responsibility for her own investment choices; it was all ‘Wall Street’ and ‘sub-prime mortgages’, as if a financial tool is sentient. Then Sunstein et al turn around and announce neither you nor anyone should make choices – like investing and saving for retirement – because you can’t do it right. If no one is at fault, then what is the justification for denying people a free choice? Either people made foolish decisions, or they made the best decisions they could and things were beyond their control. But it cannot be both.
What I am proposing as a rebuttal to Sunstein is the idea that a decision you don’t understand isn’t necessarily a bad decision. It’s just a decision you don’t understand. And it is not your right to understand it. You have no right to demand an accounting of why someone made a choice unless that choice directly affects you. Sunstein argues that we ought not consider that people are pursuing their own good and have used information we lack in their own choices. Accepting that any individual knows her own situation more fully than we, or the state, ever can and is thus better positioned to make choices about her life than any third party ever could be is a foundation of libertarianism. I stay out of your choices not only because it’s morally wrong to intrude on your privacy and make choices for you, but because I just don’t know your situation.
Yes, paternalism is immoral It is also ineffective.
The way Sunstein evades this profound truth is to appeal to the experts. Champions of the individual see experts as helpful people who can provide suggestions and information for one to consider. Statists and paternalists see experts as demigods who should be running the show. That’s actually a very big difference. In Sunstein’s formulation, because “psychologists and behavioral economists” have found that people may make silly and regrettable choices and may select a short term gain over a larger, long term gain, we are free from any need to consider that the individual is better placed to make choices about her life than anyone else. Oh, dear, where ever would we be without experts telling us that humans have been known to make bad choices.
But we must not ignore than the real thrust of this argument is to zero out morality, ethics, and respect for human dignity as considerations in governance.
Sunstein brings up that august hero of private, individual decision-making, J.S. Mill, only to dismiss him as being flat-out wrong about autonomy, a sloppy thinker who didn’t understand humans and who said nothing morally compelling. The only reason I am not advocating throttling Cass Sunstein purely for insulting Mill is that I just can’t balance doing something deeply antithetical to Mill’s thought in the name of Mill. Well, that and the fact that there J.S. Mill was a brilliant thinker who elucidated wonderful truths about what it means to be human, how we should treat one another, and what sort of state we should have; there is no need to cudgel Cass Sunstein in order to reveal the enduring merit of J.S. Mill. I would still like to beat Sunstein to a pulp with a hard bound, large print copy of the annotated System of Logic. But I choose not to because of my internalized morality, because of my ability make a rational cost-benefit analysis, and because I never do anything to damage a good book if I can possibly avoid it.
Sunstein uses Mill to bring up the strong, innate preference people have for making their own choices and to describe the appeal of Mill as ‘intuition’. The context in which he places ‘intuition’ makes is painfully clear that he sees the concept as quaint and plans to crush it. Per Sunstein, the only reason anyone would find On Liberty and other pieces of Mill’s thought agreeable is that the ideas please our ‘intuition’. Not only is there nothing true or right in Mill, we’re all too stupid to appreciate what the man was saying, anyway. Mill was just an idiot saying dumb things that are still in print because the rest of the dumb humans like to be told they’re capable of self-governing. Our desire for autonomy is just another stupid little heuristic, and the nice doctor Sunstein will take care of it for us, even if it hurts.
Enlightenment thought, classic liberal ideas, and the entire body of human output that is inconvenient to Sunstein implicitly gets set up against the psychologists and economists whose work is useful to furthering paternalism. This is not a jibe at either discipline, as plenty of psychologists an economists are advocates of individualism and have done much good toward that end. In fact, there are only two professions where you can make a living from human misery: psychology and politics. Only one of them is noble. Here, as elsewhere, Sunstein picks and choose the thinkers he can use and dismisses the rest. Wiping away what has come before, mankind’s cultural heritage, is collectivist stock-in-trade. It’s a little ironic as Sunstein, is his mad march to denigrate every mind that doesn’t agree with him and describe past generations as laughable know-nothings, is himself is fealty to a very old thinker, indeed: that original architect of the ‘benevolent’ dictatorship, Plato.
This is a sneaky and, sadly, effective ploy on Sunstein’s part. A large part of the argument for letting individuals govern themselves, for using the state to protect rather than diminish that right, is moral. Sunstein is trying to tell us that the truly moral thing is to allow one class of soi-dissant experts – he and his pals – to choose other experts and then make expert choices for the hoi polloi. This is only moral when dealing with children and the small class of people so profoundly retarded as to be, functionally, children. In those cases, we are still morally bound to consider the humanity and dignity of others. To do anything less is a failure to fulfill our own humanity and dignity.
Parents and guardians make many choices for children toward the end of protecting those children while they grow up and guiding them to be capable adults. When raising a child, one hopefully understands that the authority to make choices on behalf of the child steadily diminishes from day one and eventually ends altogether. When looking after a profoundly retarded adult, a caregiver is still obliged to allow that individual as much freedom, privacy, and autonomy as possible and to seek whatever improvement and healing is possible.
Good men do not derive pleasure from making choices for other people.
Not only has Sunstein no apparent problem with minimizing individuals, he’s quite frank about drawing no distinction between a child, a profoundly retarded adult, and the vast majority of the human race. Someone who spends some of the money she knows she should save on a new lipstick and someone who cannot safely be alone for more than 15 minutes are identical for the sake of Cass Sunstein’s policy prescriptions. That alone should convince the thinking woman to walk away from him and his dangerous, inhumane ideas. Alas, the man has real influence and a national platform.
Leftists, a category that certainly subsumes Cass Sunstein, are fond of characterizing anyone on the right as being risk averse and frightened of anything new, repelled by the whiff of change. First, having an appreciation of real risks and assessing them against the likelihood and scale of the reward is a vastly different thing from being so terrified of taking any chance that it becomes handicap. Second, and more crucial for the current argument, it is the lefties with their fevered fixation on picking the outcome and getting there at any cost who are dangerously risk averse. They’re the ones who don’t want to tolerate anything where the precise end isn’t guaranteed, who recoil at the idea that they won’t know, let alone control, the steps other people take. What Sunstein proposes is to eliminate all risk, even when the people taking the risk are aware of the chance they are taking and are willing to bear the consequences of failure. The corollary of this – and Sunstein knows it damn well – is that individuals are to be robbed of any benefit from taking a risk that pays off.
Too, we are to lose any personal gain from making choices, taking risks, and dealing with outcomes. Going through that process, over and over, on matters large and small, is integral to being human. It’s part and parcel of growing up. The very act of being able to make our our choices without interference is pleasing and necessary to well-being. Happiness is a worthy end. Taking risks means being hurt; it is inevitable and it is to be embraced. Even when a choice does not lead to the hoped for outcome, people learn. Ideally, they get better at making choices and learn worthy lessons. Even if they don’t, the rest of us are still bound by our our humanity to respect the autonomy of others. Sometimes, we can’t even see the good and the knowledge that others gain by going through a decision-making process and handling the resulting situation. It doesn’t matter. It isn’t about us.
If Cass Sunstein gets his way, we’ll all settle into mundane existences chosen for us, choice and autonomy stripped away in order to make things pleasant and easy for the state, in order to please the egos of paternalists.
(Tomorrow, I intend to post some thoughts on the writer Sunstein was, supposedly, reviewing. It’s just that this piece is long enough and cocktail our is upon the land.)
Praise for PPC From Our Lefty "Fan"
- "Zany-ass bombast-entertainment...Hackneyed weirdo communist pseudo-nostalgia" --Alan Franklin, ProgressNow
- PPC Training for Activists
UPDATE: Something apparently got messed up with the PayPal buttons during this past weekend’s database glitch – fixed now. Yes, it’s that time again — PPC will be conducting training classes for center-right activists on Saturday, April 20 and Saturday, April 27, at Independence Institute in Denver. The tentative class schedule is as follows: Saturday, [...]
- Holder’s First Letter to Paul Precipitates the Best Filibuster Ever
- The Lamest Twitter Argument Ever Offered?
- Return of the PPC Re-Education Camps – You Know You Want to Be There
- Supreme Courts Blesses Warrantless Surveillance of Citizens in a Kafkaesque Farce
- GOP Elite and the Ruling Class
- Do We Now Get to Call Joe Salazar a “Rapist”?