Another Entry in the Sunstein Saga

Alec Rawls, writing at his blog, Error Theory:

As Congress considers vastly expanding the power of copyright holders to shut down fair use of their intellectual property, this is a good time to remember the other activities that Obama’s “regulatory czar” Cass Sunstein wants to shut down using the tools of copyright protection. For a couple of years now, Sunstein has been advocating that the “notice and take down” model from copyright law should be used against rumors and conspiracy theories, “to achieve the optimal chilling effect.”


Sunstein seems most intent on suppressing is the accusation, leveled during the 2008 election campaign, that Barack Obama “pals around with terrorists.” (“Look Inside” page 3.) Sunstein fails to note that the “palling around with terrorists” language was introduced by the opposing vice presidential candidate, Governor Sarah Palin (who was implicating Obama’s relationship with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers). Instead Sunstein focuses his ire on “right wing websites” that make “hateful remarks about the alleged relationship between Barack Obama and the former radical Bill Ayers,” singling out Sean Hannity for making hay out of Obama’s “alleged associations” (pages 13-14).

What could possibly be more important than whether a candidate for president does indeed “pal around with terrorists”? Of all the subjects to declare off limits, this one is right up there with whether the anti-CO2 alarmists who are trying to unplug the modern world are telling the truth. And Sunstein’s own bias on the matter could hardly be more blatant. Bill Ayers is a “former” radical? Bill “I don’t regret setting bombs” Ayers? Bill “we didn’t do enough” Ayers?

For the facts of the Obama-Ayers relationship, Sunstein apparently accepts Obama’s campaign dismissal of Ayers as just “a guy who lives in my neighborhood.” In fact their relationship was long and deep. Obama’s political career was launched via a fundraiser in Bill Ayers’ living room; Obama was appointed the first chairman of the Ayers-founded Annenberg Challenge, almost certainly at Ayers’ request; Ayers and Obama served together on the board of the Woods Foundation, distributing money to radical left-wing causes; and it has now been reported by full-access White House biographer Christopher Andersen (and confirmed by Bill Ayers) that Ayers actually ghost wrote Obama’s first book Dreams from My Father.

Whenever free speech is attacked, the real purpose is to cover up the truth. Not that Sunstein himself knows the truth about anything. He just knows what he wants to suppress, which is exactly why government must never have this power.

As Rawls notes, Sunstein also wants to protect “warmists” from their critics, that is, to suppress science in the name of science:

In climate science, there is no avoiding “reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role.” The Team has always been sloppy about concealing its machinations, but that doesn’t stop Sunstein from using climate skepticism as an exemplar of pernicious conspiracy theorizing, and his goal is perfectly obvious: he wants the state to take aggressive action that will make it easier for our powerful government funded scientists to conceal their machinations.

Rawls’s thesis is entirely unsurprising to me. This is from “Fascism with a Friendly Face,” a post I wrote almost three years ago:

Regarding the suppression of dissent, it is noteworthy that Obama’s has tagged Cass Sunstein (a Chicago crony) to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the White House. (See this article for more about the likely direction of OIRA under Sunstein.) My biggest concern about Sunstein, who figures to be a strong influence on Obama, is his embrace of the oxymoronical thing known as “libertarian paternalism.” (For an exposition of its flaws, see this post and its predecessors, linked therein.)

“Libertarian paternalism” is nothing more than a dressed-up version of paternalism, in which the government is used to “nudge” people toward making the kinds of decisions that Sunstein and his ilk would make. That is to say, Sunstein (like too many other bright individuals) likes to believe that he knows what’s best for others. (That conceit is demolished in the posts mentioned at the end of the preceding paragraph and in these posts by an avowed utilitarian.)

“Libertarian paternalism” may seem innocuous, but there’s more to it than a bit of “nudging” (hah!) by the one-ton gorilla in the room (i.e., the federal government). Perhaps the most frightening item on Sunstein’s paternalistic agenda ties into Sen. Rockefeller’s proposal to give the president the power to shut down the internet — which amounts to the power to control the content of the internet. And make no mistake about it, Sunstein would like to control the content of the internet — for our own good, of course. I refer specifically to Sunstein’s “The Future of Free Speech,” in which he advances several policy proposals, including these:

4. . . . [T]he government might impose “must carry” rules on the most popular Websites, designed to ensure more exposure to substantive questions. Under such a program, viewers of especially popular sites would see an icon for sites that deal with substantive issues in a serious way. They would not be required to click on them. But it is reasonable to expect that many viewers would do so, if only to satisfy their curiosity. The result would be to create a kind of Internet sidewalk, promoting some of the purposes of the public forum doctrine. Ideally, those who create Websites might move in this direction on their own. If they do not, government should explore possibilities of imposing requirements of this kind, making sure that no program draws invidious lines in selecting the sites whose icons will be favoured. Perhaps a lottery system of some kind could be used to reduce this risk.

5. The government might impose “must carry” rules on highly partisan Websites, designed to ensure that viewers learn about sites containing opposing views. This policy would be designed to make it less likely for people to simply hear echoes of their own voices. Of course, many people would not click on the icons of sites whose views seem objectionable; but some people would, and in that sense the system would not operate so differently from general interest intermediaries and public forums. Here too the ideal situation would be voluntary action. But if this proves impossible, it is worth considering regulatory alternatives. [Emphasis added.]

A Left-libertarian defends Sunstein’s foray into thought control, concluding that

Sunstein once thought some profoundly dumb policies might be worth considering, but realized years ago he was wrong about that… The idea was a tentative, speculative suggestion he now condemns in pretty strong terms.

Alternatively, in the face of severe criticism of his immodest proposal, Sunstein merely went underground, to await an opportunity to revive his proposal. I somehow doubt that Sunstein, as a confirmed paternalist, truly abandoned it. The proposal certainly was not off-the-cuff, running to 11 longish web pages.  Now, judging by the bulleted list above, the time is right for a revival of Sunstein’s proposal. And there he is, heading the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. The powers of that office supposedly are constrained by the executive order that established it. But it is evident that the Obama adminstration isn’t bothered by legal niceties when it comes to the exercise of power. Only a few pen strokes stand between Obama and a new, sweeping executive order, the unconstitutionality of which would be of no import to our latter-day FDR.

Cass Sunstein is a dangerous man because he is intelligent, power-hungry, and overtly in favor of liberty, even as he fosters its demise.

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Related posts:
Sunstein at the Volokh Conspiracy
More from Sunstein
Cass Sunstein’s Truly Dangerous Mind
An (Imaginary) Interview with Cass Sunstein
Libertarian Paternalism
Slippery Sunstein
A Libertarian Paternalist’s Dream World
The Short Answer to Libertarian Paternalism
Second-Guessing, Paternalism, Parentalism, and Choice
Another Thought about Libertarian Paternalism
Back-Door Paternalism
Another Voice Against the New Paternalism
Sunstein and Executive Power
The Feds and “Libertarian Paternalism”
A Further Note about “Libertarian” Paternalism
Apropos Paternalism
FDR and Fascism
Are We All Fascists Now?
Fascism with a “Friendly” Face
Fascism and the Future of America
Discounting and Libertarian Paternalism
The Mind of a Paternalist