Glenn Beck has described Cass Sunstein as “the most dangerous man in America,” but the 11 essays collected in “Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas” actually reveal him to be a pretty reasonable guy. He is often provocative but never extreme, and the foaming at the mouth he induces says more about our polarized politics than it does about his ideas. One explanation for the vitriol is that for three years Sunstein served as President Obama’s “regulatory czar.” But guilt by association is not his only sin in the eyes of his foes. Sunstein’s belief that intelligent policies and well-designed regulations can actually improve our lives is anathema to those who insist that government is the problem, not the solution.
Sunstein, who now teaches at Harvard Law School, is a pioneer in behavioral economics, a field that examines how ordinary, falliblehumans — as opposed to the rational, all-knowing organisms posited by classical economic theory— really behave. In his best-selling book “Nudge” (co-authored with Richard Thaler) Sunstein proposed something he called libertarian paternalism, in which governments and other institutions would promote better life choices through gentle (and largely invisible) manipulation.
Does this qualify Sunstein as a threat to our way of life? Hardly. Sunstein is an advocate for what works and a skeptic of grand ideologies that sound good on paper but then wreak havoc in the real world. In his essay on “The New Progressivism,” Sunstein spends as much time enumerating the failures of central planning and government meddling in the marketplace as he does on the inequalities engendered by unfettered capitalism. New Progressives, he claims, “know that good intentions are no excuse for bad outcomes” — a trait that presumably separates them from the old-fashioned variety who cling to ideologies long after they’ve paved the road to hell. Where possible, Sunstein believes, solutions to life’s inequities should be sought in market-friendly methods and gentle nudges rather than Soviet style 5-year plans. Thus he prefers the Earned Income Tax Credit to a mandated minimum wage to address wealth disparity, and incentive-based programs to strict prohibitions when it comes to cleaning up the environment.
His sensible approach is typified in an essay on “Trimming,” the art of political navigation described by its 17th-century founder as “dwelling in the middle between the two extreams.” But for all his moderation, there is something slightly unnerving about Sunstein’s pragmatism — an approach one might describe as Orwell-lite.
This aspect of his thought comes through most clearly in the book’s first essay, “Conspiracy Theories,” his attempt to come to grips with the dangerous tendency of many to view reality through a paranoid filter. To counteract the formation of what Professor Russell Hardin calls “crippled epistemologies,” delusions that can lead to such real-world tragedies as the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11, Sunstein proposes “cognition infiltration” — a process by which supposedly good information drives out bad.
If cognition infiltration sounds vaguely sinister, it follows logically from behavioral economics that teaches that people are easily manipulated and usually mistaken. In an essay titled “The Laws of Happiness,” Sunstein quotes a study that shows that “people are systematically wrong in their expectations about the life circumstances that will increase or decrease their happiness.” This leads to the rather disturbing conclusion that, instead of relying on our own intuition, we ought to lean more heavily on those who supposedly know better than we what’s good for us. Given the fact that we are poor judges of what makes us happy, and even poorer judges when it comes to other people, Sunstein argues that that it makes sense for well-intentioned bureaucrats to nudge us in helpful directions, particularly when there are plenty who stand to profit by exploiting our weaknesses.
The problem is that one man’s helpful nudge is another man’s thought control. Those tasked with shaping behavior — a group he ominously labels “norm entrepreneurs” — are presumed to be immune to the same irrational impulses that drive the rest of us, or at least privy to better information, but this isn’t necessarily true. The means Sunstein deploys and the ends he hopes to achieve are largely sensible, but it’s not difficult to see how this approach could be misused. At one point Sunstein describes a study in which binge drinking on campus was reduced by informing students that few of their peers engaged in such behavior. But wouldn’t this information be just as effective if it were false? And if so, can the government justify lying to its people in order to encourage them to make better choices or to discourage antisocial behavior?
Given Sunstein’s belief that human beings are fundamentally irrational, his faith in pragmatic solutions seems itself somewhat irrational. Throughout the 11 essays in this book, Sunstein is a clear-eyed guide through some of the thornier issues of our day, but since we rarely know where our true interests lie, it’s unclear how effective he can be in knocking some sense into us.Miles Unger is the author of “Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de’ Medici,” “Machiavelli: A Biography,” and the upcoming “Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces.”