Cass Sunstein

Richard Thaler, Nobel Laureate

I am slightly irked by today’s news of the selection of Richard Thaler as the 2017 Noblel laureate in economics. (It’s actually the Swedish National Bank’s Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, not one of the original prizes designated in Alfred Nobel’s will.) Granted, Thaler did some praiseworthy and groundbreaking work in behavioral economics, which is nicely summarized in this post by Timothy Taylor.

But Thaler, whom I knew slightly when he was a consultant to the outfit where I worked, gets a lot of pushback when he translates his work into normative prescriptions. He was already semi-famous (or infamous) for his collaboration with Cass Sunstein. Together and separately they propounded “libertarian paternalism”, an obnoxious oxymoron that they abandoned in favor of “nudging”. Thus their book-length epistle to true believers in governmental omniscience, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health and Happiness.

It would be a vast understatement to say that I disagree with Thaler and Sunstein’s policy prescriptions. I have recorded my disagreements in many posts, which are listed below.

Sunstein at the Volokh Conspiracy
More from Sunstein
Cass Sunstein’s Truly Dangerous Mind
An (Imaginary) Interview with Cass Sunstein
Libertarian Paternalism
A Libertarian Paternalist’s Dream World
Slippery Sunstein
The Short Answer to Libertarian Paternalism
Second-Guessing, Paternalism, Parentalism, and Choice
Another Thought about Libertarian Paternalism
Back-Door Paternalism
Sunstein and Executive Power
Another Voice Against the New Paternalism
The Feds and “Libertarian Paternalism”
A Further Note about “Libertarian” Paternalism
Apropos Paternalism
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
Discounting and Libertarian Paternalism
The Mind of a Paternalist
The Mind of a Paternalist, Revisited
Another Entry in the Sunstein Saga
The Sunstein Effect Is Alive and Well in the White House
Sunstein the Fatuous
Not-So-Random Thoughts (XVI) – first item
The Perpetual Nudger

Quick Hits

There’s work underway to

find any of the genetic variants associated with intelligence, however weak and inconsistent they may be, and then look up the published literature to see how frequent those variants are in any racial group.

I’m fairly certain how it will turn out, if the work isn’t sabotaged by those who fear the truth.

Academe’s war on conservatism continues. What else is new?

There’s also a (not new) internet-based war on conservatism (e.g., here and here). Cass Sunstein, a leading light of the anti-free speech forces, was Obama’s regulatory czar. Connect the dots.

Robert Higgs hates the use of “we,” “us,” and “our” in policy discourse. So do I.

Steven Horwitz offers a concise and elegant gloss of Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” I’ve addressed Hayek’s essay here, and a related one (“The Pretence of Knowledge“) here.

The Perpetual Nudger

Richard Thaler, about whose “libertarian” paternalism I’ve written many times, is at it again. Thaler, in case you don’t know of him, is co-author (with Cass Sunstein) of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Thaler’s partnership with Sunstein should be enough to tell you that “libertarian” paternalism is about paternalism, not liberty. (My many essays about Thaler, Sunstein, and their works and minds are among the “related posts” at the bottom of this one.)

What’s Thaler up to now? It seems that he’s written a new book, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, from which he has drawn “Unless You Are Spock, Irrelevant Things Matter in Economic Behavior” (The New York Times, May 8, 2015). The article displays three of Thaler’s pet tricks:

  • He misrepresents classical microeconomics.
  • He assumes (implicitly) that everyone should make economic decisions from an omniscient, end-of-life perspective.
  • He substitutes his economic desiderata for the free choices of millions of persons.

Regarding Thaler’s misrepresentation of classical microeconomics, consider these passages from his article:

Economists [who adhere to traditional microeconomic theory] discount any factors that would not influence the thinking of a rational person. These things are supposedly irrelevant. But unfortunately for the theory, many supposedly irrelevant factors do matter.

Economists create this problem with their insistence on studying mythical creatures often known as Homo economicus. I prefer to call them “Econs”— highly intelligent beings that are capable of making the most complex of calculations but are totally lacking in emotions. Think of Mr. Spock in “Star Trek.” In a world of Econs, many things would in fact be irrelevant.

No Econ would buy a larger portion of whatever will be served for dinner on Tuesday because he happens to be hungry when shopping on Sunday. Your hunger on Sunday should be irrelevant in choosing the size of your meal for Tuesday. An Econ would not finish that huge meal on Tuesday, even though he is no longer hungry, just because he had paid for it. To an Econ, the price paid for an item in the past is not relevant in making the decision about how much of it to eat now.

An Econ would not expect a gift on the day of the year in which she happened to get married, or be born. What difference do these arbitrary dates make?…

Of course, most economists know that the people with whom they interact do not resemble Econs. In fact, in private moments, economists are often happy to admit that most of the people they know are clueless about economic matters. But for decades, this realization did not affect the way most economists did their work. They had a justification: markets. To defenders of economics orthodoxy, markets are thought to have magic powers.

This reads more like the confession of an Econ than an accurate description of the principles of microeconomics. Even in those benighted days when I learned the principles of “micro” — just a few years ahead of Thaler — it was understood that the assumption of rationality was an approximation of the tendency of individuals to try to make themselves better off by making choices that would do so, given their tastes and preferences and the information that they possess at the time or could obtain at a cost commensurate with the value of the decision at hand.

Yes, there are Econs, but they’re usually economists who also know full well that the mass of people don’t behave like Econs (as Thaler admits), and for whom the postulate of utter rationality is, as I’ve suggested, shorthand for an imprecise tendency. The fact that most human beings aren’t Econs doesn’t vitiate the essential truth of the traditional theory of choice. What seems to bother Thaler is that most people aren’t Econs; their tastes and preferences seem irrational to him, and it’s his (self-appointed) role in life to force them to make “correct” decisions (i.e., the decisions he would make).

I’ll say more about that. But I can’t let Thaler’s views about markets pass without comment. He continues:

There is a version of this magic market argument that I call the invisible hand wave…. Words and phrases such as high stakes, learning and arbitrage are thrown around to suggest some of the ways that markets can do their magic, but it is my claim that no one has ever finished making the argument with both hands remaining still.

Hand waving is required because there is nothing in the workings of markets that turns otherwise normal human beings into Econs. For example, if you choose the wrong career, select the wrong mortgage or fail to save for retirement, markets do not correct those failings. In fact, quite the opposite often happens. It is much easier to make money by catering to consumers’ biases than by trying to correct them.

This is a perverted description of the role of markets. And it betrays the peculiar vantage point from which Thaler views economic decision-making. Markets provide information, much of which reflects decisions already made by others. Markets, in other words, enable persons who are contemplating decisions to learn from the decisions of others — whether those others view their decisions as bad, good, or indifferent. But it’s up to persons who are contemplating decisions to take advantage of the information provide by markets. I’ve never known anyone to suggest that markets are antidote of sorts for choices already made.

Moreover, markets don’t merely “cater to consumers’ biases.” Markets enable businesses to shape consumers’ tastes and preferences by presenting them with information about the availability and advantages of new and improved products and services. Markets transmit information in two directions, not just from consumers to producers.

What about people who make “bad” choices, such as choosing the “wrong” career, selecting the “wrong” mortgage, or failing to save for retirement? That’s Thaler the Nudge talking. He wants to save people from such fates. While he’s at it, perhaps he can also save them from choosing the wrong spouse or the wrong number of children.

I say that because when Thaler writes about “wrong” choices in such matters, he writes as if people can and should make their minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, week-by-week, and year-by-year decisions by reckoning (like an Econ) how those decisions will affect their “score” when they reach the finish line of life, or some other arbitrary point in time. What about all those points in between, don’t they count, too? And who knows when the finish line will arrive? Given such quandaries and uncertainties, how are the irrational masses supposed to cope? Well, they don’t — or so Thaler would like to believe. So it follows that Thaler must cope for them, but only when it comes to his pet projects (e.g., automatic enrollment in 401(k) plans). He’s silent about the myriad other decisions that real people face.

Why should Thaler care if X chooses the “wrong” career, takes a mortgage he can’t afford, doesn’t save “enough” for retirement, chooses the “wrong” spouse, or has “too many” children? It’s paternalistic thinking like Thaler’s that leads politicians to concoct programs that transfer the cost of bad choices from those who make them to those who are just trying to live their lives without making them. I expect that Thaler would respond by saying that government is already in the business of making such transfers, so the best thing is to reduce the need for them. No, the best thing is to make individuals responsible for the consequences of their choices, and let them — and others — learn from the consequences. The best thing is to dismantle the dependency-creating, handout-giving functions of government. And a behavioral economist like Thaler is just the kind of person who could mount a strong economic case against those functions — if he were of a mind to do so.

Thaler doesn’t seem to be of a mind to do so because what he really wants is for people to make the “right” decisions, by his lights. Why? Because he knows what’s best for all of us; for example:

Consider defined-contribution retirement plans like 401(k)’s. Econs would have no trouble figuring out how much to save for retirement and how to invest the money, but mere humans can find it quite tough. So knowledgeable employers have incorporated three [features] in their plan design: they automatically enroll employees (who can opt out), they automatically increase the saving rate every year, and they offer a sensible default investment choice like a target date fund. These features significantly improve the outcomes of plan participants…. [TEA: This assumes that everyone should care more about retirement income than about anything else, at the margin.]

These retirement plans also have a supposedly relevant factor: Contributions and capital appreciation are tax-sheltered until retirement. This tax break was created to induce people to save more….

[The authors of a recent study] conclude: “…Automatic enrollment or default policies that nudge individuals to save more could have larger impacts on national saving at lower social cost.”

Get it? One of the objectives of nudging people to participate in 401(k) plans is to raise the national saving rate. Anyone who’s passingly familiar with this blog knows that I often decry government policies that discourage saving, especially by imposing more taxes on high-earners, because such policies reduce saving and therefore reduce investment and economic growth. But saving should be a voluntary thing, and the national saving rate should emerge from voluntary decisions. It shouldn’t be dictated by those, like Thaler, who view a higher national saving rate as a holy grail, to be advanced by policies that effectively dictate the “choices” that people make. But that’s Thaler for you: Imposing his economic desiderata on others.

I learned one thing from Thaler’s article: He’s a quintessential Econ. Pot. Kettle. Black.

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Related reading: John Cochrane, “Homo Economicus or Homo Paleas?,” The Grumpy Economist, May 22, 2015 (In which Professor Cochrane reinforces some of my points and makes some others — all telling.)

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Related posts:

The Rationality Fallacy
Libertarian Paternalism
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
Slippery Paternalists
The Feds and “Libertarian Paternalism”
A Further Note about “Libertarian” Paternalism
Apropos Paternalism
Irrationality, Suboptimality, and Voting
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
More about Paternalism
Columnist, Heal Thyself
Discounting and Libertarian Paternalism
The Mind of a Paternalist
The Mind of a Paternalist, Revisited
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Irrational Rationality
Not-So-Random Thoughts (III) (third item)
The Sunstein Effect Is Alive and Well in the White House (see “related posts” for many more about Sunstein)
Not-So-Random Thoughts (XII) (eighth item)

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Sunstein the Fatuous

Since my last brush with the dangerous mind of Cass Sunstein (here, seventh item), I have encountered two more of his effusions. They reveal Sunstein’s utter fatuity.

In a piece that dates back to May of last year, Sunstein writes:

Suppose that an authoritarian government decides to embark on a program of curricular reform, with the explicit goal of indoctrinating the nation’s high school students. Suppose that it wants to change the curriculum to teach students that their government is good and trustworthy, that their system is democratic and committed to the rule of law, and that free markets are a big problem.

Will such a government succeed? Or will high school students simply roll their eyes?

Questions of this kind have long been debated, but without the benefit of reliable evidence. New research, from Davide Cantoni of the University of Munich and several co-authors, shows that recent curricular reforms in China, explicitly designed to transform students’ political views, have mostly worked….

…[G]overnment planners were able to succeed in altering students’ views on fundamental questions about their nation. As Cantoni and his co-authors summarize their various findings, “the state can effectively indoctrinate students.” To be sure, families and friends matter, as do economic incentives, but if an authoritarian government is determined to move students in major ways, it may well be able to do so.

Is this conclusion limited to authoritarian nations? In a democratic country with a flourishing civil society, a high degree of pluralism, and ample room for disagreement and dissent — like the U.S. — it may well be harder to use the curriculum to change the political views of young people. But even in such societies, high schools probably have a significant ability to move students toward what they consider “a correct worldview, a correct view on life, and a correct value system.” That’s an opportunity, to be sure, but it is also a warning. [“Open Brain, Insert Ideology,” Bloomberg View, May 20, 2014]

Where has Sunstein been? He seems unaware of the left-wing ethos that has long prevailed in most of America’s so-called institutions of learning. It doesn’t take an authoritarian government (well, not one as authoritarian as China’s) to indoctrinate students in “a correct worldview, a correct view on life, and a correct value system.” All it takes is the spread of left-wing “values” by the media and legions of pedagogues, most of them financed (directly and indirectly) by a thoroughly subverted government. It’s almost a miracle — and something of a moral victory — that there are still tens of millions of Americans who resist and oppose left-wing “values.”

Moving on, we find Sunstein arguing circularly in his contribution to a collection of papers entitled “Economists on the Welfare State and the Regulatory State: Why Don’t Any Argue in Favor of One and Against the Other?” (Econ Journal Watch, Volume 12, Issue 1, January 2015):

…[I]t seems unhelpful, even a recipe for confusion, to puzzle over the question whether economists (or others) ‘like,’ or ‘lean toward,’ both the regulatory state and the welfare state, or neither, or one but not the other. But there is a more fine-grained position on something like that question, and I believe that many (not all) economists would support it. The position is this: The regulatory state should restrict itself to the correction of market failures, and redistributive goals are best achieved through the tax system. Let’s call this (somewhat tendentiously) the Standard View….

My conclusion is that it is not fruitful to puzzle over the question whether economists and others ‘favor’ or ‘lean’ toward the regulatory or welfare state, and that it is better to begin by emphasizing that the first should be designed to handle market failures, and that the second should be designed to respond to economic deprivation and unjustified inequality…. [Sunstein, “Unhelpful Abstractions and the Standard View,” op cit.]

“Market failures” and “unjustified inequality” are the foundation stones of what passes for economic and social thought on the left. Every market outcome that falls short of the left’s controlling agenda is a “failure.” And market and social outcomes that fall short of the left’s illusory egalitarianism are “unjustified.” Sunstein, in other words, can’t see that he is a typical leftist who (implicitly) favors both the regulatory state and the welfare state. He is like a fish in water.

It remains a mystery to me why Sunstein has been called a “legal Olympian.” Then, again, if there were a legal Olympics, its main events would be Obfuscation and Casuistry. Sunstein would be a formidable contestant in both events.

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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
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
Another Entry in the Sunstein Saga
The Sunstein Effect Is Alive and Well in the White House
Not-So-Random Thoughts (XII) (seventh item)

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The Sunstein Effect Is Alive and Well in the White House

Although Cass Sunstein, Obama’s erstwhile “czar” for regulatory matters, has returned to academe, his spirit lives on in the White House. Sunstein is infamous for at least two things. One of them is his advocacy of something known as “libertarian paternalism,” which is the antithesis of libertarianism. The other is his advocacy of censorship.

For more about the latter, see (for example) this post, where I say this:

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.]

There is more in a later post:

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.”

Why?

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.

Now, in response to the recent, deadly, and continuing anti-American violence in the Middle East — the excuse for which is “Innocence of Muslims” — we read this of the Obama administration:

Administration officials have asked YouTube to review a controversial video that many blame for spurring a wave of anti-American violence in the Middle East.

The administration flagged the 14-minute “Innocence of Muslims” video and asked that YouTube evaluate it to determine whether it violates the site’s terms of service, officials said Thursday. The video, which has been viewed by nearly 1.7 million users, depicts Muhammad as a child molester, womanizer and murderer — and has been decried as blasphemous and Islamophobic.

“Review” it, or else. When the 500-pound gorilla speaks, you say “yes, sir.”

Way to go, O-blame-a. Do not stand up for Americans. Suppress them instead. It’s the Sunstein way.

Related reading:
Mary Katherine Ham, “The Eight Dumbest Things Said about Free Speech This Week,” Hot Air, September 14, 2012
Eugene Volokh, “Why Punishing Blasphemous Speech That Triggers Murderous Reactions Would Likely Lead to More Deaths,” The Volokh Conspiracy, September 15, 2012

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
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
Another Entry in the Sunstein Saga

Not-So-Random Thoughts (V)

Links to the other posts in this occasional series may be found at “Favorite Posts,” just below the list of topics.

Added 08/13/12: Patience as a Tool of Strategy

I wrote about this a while ago. My closing thoughts:

Patience is not a virtue that accrues to amorphous masses, like nations. It can be found only in individuals or groups of individuals who share the same objectives and are able to work together long enough to attain those objectives. Whether such individuals or groups lead nations — and lead them wisely — is another matter.

Imlac’s Journal has a relevant post, about Roman consul and general Fabius Maximus (280 – 203 B.C.),

exemplary in terms of his patience, endurance and self-sacrifice.  He reminds one in many ways of George Washington. Both men lost battles, but in the long run their steady and sensible strategies won wars.

It is possible to be impatient in small things — to have a hair-trigger temper — and yet to be patient in the quest for a major goal. Impatience in small things may even serve the strategy of patience, if impatience (deployed sparingly and selectively) helps to maintain discipline among the ranks.

Added 08/13/12: Beauty-ism

I was amused to find that my post “How to Combat Beauty-ism” has been linked to in the opening paragraph of “Beauty and the Beast: The ‘Othering’ of Women by the Beauty Industry.” This post is on the website of something called The South African Civil Society Information Service: A nonprofit news agency promoting social justice. Seeking answers to the question: How do we make democracy work for the poor?

The author, one Gillian Schutte, who seems to be a regular contributor, is styled “an award winning independent filmmaker, writer and social justice activist.” Ms. Schutte (if “Ms.” is the proper appellation for a South African) appears to be a well-groomed, passably attractive (but not beautiful) person of middle age. She writes:

Beautyism is an assumption that physical appeal prevails [sic] knowledge, value, or anything personable [sic]. It is the inherent bias that bestows all sorts of unproved talents and privileges onto a person simply because she is beautiful.

And it could be, as Ms. Schutte’s writing demonstrates, that a lack of beauty is no guarantee of intelligence. In fact, it might be a source of bitterness, which surfaces as rage against the West and those who dare to be civilized and prosperous. Thus, according to Schutte, the beauty industry

along with the mainstream media, is premised on beautyism and has employed a very effective tool of “othering” those who do not fit into the idealised picture of what is pleasing to the male gaze….

“[O]thering” is a tactic that is used in the marginalisation of many groups of people by the moneyed mainstream. These include the LGBTI sector, the poor, Muslims, and Blacks – and they are marginalised so that those doing the marginalisation can use them as a means to an end. An example is the demonization of Islam in order to push the imperialist oil grabbing agenda of the West.

Wow! From beauty-ism (my preferred spelling) to oil-grabbing in a single post.

I have not seen any oil-grabbing recently, unless it is considered oil-grabbing when Westerners choose to buy the oil that Islamic nations deign to offer for sale. If Islam has been demonized, chalk it up to Islamic extremists, who — among many things — have committed acts of terror against innocents, have punished and murdered persons of the “LGBTI sector,” and are not known for their appreciation of the social value of women, except as bed-partners, bearers of children, and domestic slaves. Such is the selective outrage of the professional “social justice activist.” I could not have written a better parody of “social justice activism” than the one that Ms. Schutte has unwittingly produced.

Income Inequality — The Pseudo-Problem That Will Not Die

The Mismeasure of Inequality” (Kip Hagopian and Lee Ohaian, Policy Review, August 1, 2012) is as thorough a primer on the pseudo-problem of inequality as anyone is likely to find, anywhere. The authors’ facts and logic will not convince hard-leftists who believe in income redistribution and are blind and deaf to its dire consequences for low-income persons. But reasonable people might be swayed.

Closely related are Deirdre McCloskey’s powerful defense of free markets: “Actual Free Market Fairness” (Bleeding Heart Libertarians, June 26 2012) and authoritative demolition of MIchael Sandel’s anti-market screed, “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limit of Markets” (Prudentia, August 1, 2012).

Related posts:
The Causes of Economic Growth
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
A Short Course in Economics
Democracy and Liberty
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
The Near-Victory of Communism
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Left
Enough of “Social Welfare”
A True Flat Tax
A True Flat Tax
Taxing the Rich
More about Taxing the Rich
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Nature Is Unfair
Elizabeth Warren Is All Wet
“Occupy Wall Street” and Religion
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
What Is Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism?
The Morality of Occupying Private Property
In Defense of the 1%

Cass Sunstein

Ken Masugi’s “Missing the Significance of Cass Sunstein” (Library of Law and Liberty, August 7, 2012) is a just indictment of Sunstein’s anti-libertarian agenda. For example:

Sunstein has written among the most radical critiques of the American Constitution ever espoused. While not a Marxist revolutionary, his criticism is scarcely less transformative. His project of radicalizing the New Deal and the work of Progressives is captured in the subtitle to his book The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More than Ever. But the book that is even more explicit is After the Rights Revolution: Reconceiving the Regulatory State (1993).

Sunstein claims to present the regulatory measures of bureaucratic government “in a way that is fundamentally faithful” to the American Constitution. The book’s second sentence acknowledges that “Modern regulation has profoundly affected constitutional democracy, by renovating the original commitments to checks and balances, federalism, and individual rights.” That transformation of basic constitutional principles “culminated in the rights revolution of the 1960s and 1970s”—meaning the Great Society and post-Watergate programs. Sunstein’s task is to reinterpret the regulatory regime “in a way that is fundamentally faithful to constitutional commitments and promotes, in a dramatically different environment, the central goals of the constitutional system—freedom and welfare.”

Sunstein weaves three “more particular goals” throughout the book: 1.) the practical one of combating the Reagan and Thatcher reforms, which were based on market principles and “private right,” 2.) defending the history of government regulation in America, and 3.) proposing “a theory of interpretation that courts (and administrative agencies) …. might invoke in order to improve the performance of modern government.” Sunstein emphasizes that he wishes to save the “basic commitments of the American constitutional system,” not the text of the Constitution or the structure it sets forth. Of course the “rights revolution” has transformed the meaning of those commitments, so we are left in a universe that is open to Sunstein’s creative interpretation. As Postell observes, “The final triumph of postmodernism is to avail itself of modern or pre-modern justifications whenever they come in handy, and disparage them when they don’t.”

This post-modern perspective is richly abundant throughout After the Rights Revolution. If you thought freedom of speech is a “basic commitment” of America, think again: The “fairness doctrine” and even more extreme measures are justified to protect citizens from injuries to their “character, beliefs, and even conduct.” (For Sunstein’s regulatory schemes for the internet, including schemes for requiring links and pop-ups to alternative points of view, see Edward Erler’s Claremont Review of Books  essay, “Liberalchic.gov”)  In a regime of equal opportunity, racial preferences remedy market failures that permit employment discrimination. Of course property rights yield to the common good, as determined by political arrangements on behalf of the general welfare. Thus, the Civil War was fought not to affirm the founding principle of self-government (not to mention the quaint notion that each man owns himself) but to herald the regulatory regime of the New Deal.

With “friends” like Sunstein, liberty and the Constitution need no enemies.

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
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
Another Entry in the Sunstein Saga
Don’t Use the “S” Word When the “F” Word Will Do

Free Will

This perennial subject of philosophical and psychological debate gets another going-over by Steven Landsburg, in “Free to Choose” (The Big Questions, July 18, 2012). Landsburg defends the idea of free will. I prefer my defense (from “Free Will: A Proof by Example?“):

Is there such a thing as free will, or is our every choice predetermined? Here’s a thought experiment:

Suppose I think that I might want to eat some ice cream. I go to the freezer compartment and pull out an unopened half-gallon of vanilla ice cream and an unopened half-gallon of chocolate ice cream. I can’t decide between vanilla, chocolate, some of each, or none. I ask a friend to decide for me by using his random-number generator, according to rules of his creation. He chooses the following rules:

  • If the random number begins in an odd digit and ends in an odd digit, I will eat vanilla.
  • If the random number begins in an even digit and ends in an even digit, I will eat chocolate.
  • If the random number begins in an odd digit and ends in an even digit, I will eat some of each flavor.
  • If the random number begins in an even digit and ends in an odd digit, I will not eat ice cream.

Suppose that the number generated by my friend begins in an even digit and ends in an even digit: the choice is chocolate. I act accordingly.

I didn’t inevitably choose chocolate because of events that led to the present state of my body’s chemistry, which might otherwise have dictated my choice. That is, I broke any link between my past and my choice about a future action.

I call that free will.

I suspect that our brains are constructed in such a way as to produce the same kind of result in many situations, though certainly not in all situations. That is, we have within us the equivalent of an impartial friend and an (informed) decision-making routine, which together enable us to exercise something we can call free will….

Even if our future behavior is tightly linked to our past and present states of being — and to events outside of us that have their roots in the past and present — those linkages are so complex that they are safely beyond our comprehension and control.

If nothing else, we know that purposive human behavior can make a difference in the course of human events. Given that, and given how little we know about the complexities of existence, we might as well have free will.

See also “Is Free Will an Illusion?” (a virtual colloquium at The Chronicle of Higher Education), “Brain might not stand in the way of free will” (New Scientist, August 9, 2012), and my post, “Free Will, Crime, and Punishment.”

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.”

Why?

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.

*   *   *

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
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

Beware of Libertarian Paternalists

I have written extensively about paternalism of the so-called libertarian variety. (See this post and the posts linked therein.) Glen Whitman, in two recent posts at Agoraphilia, renews his attack on “libertarian paternalism,” the main proponents of which are Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler (S&T). In the first of the two posts, Whitman writes:

[Thaler] continues to disregard the distinction between public and private action.

Some critics contend that behavioral economists have neglected the obvious fact that bureaucrats make errors, too. But this misses the point. After all, wouldn’t you prefer to have a qualified, albeit human, technician inspect your aircraft’s engines rather than do it yourself?

The owners of ski resorts hire experts who have previously skied the runs, under various conditions, to decide which trails should be designated for advanced skiers. These experts know more than a newcomer to the mountain. Bureaucrats are human, too, but they can also hire experts and conduct research.Here we see two of Thaler’s favorite stratagems deployed at once. First, he relies on a deceptively innocuous, private, and non-coercive example to illustrate his brand of paternalism. Before it was cafeteria dessert placement; now it’s ski-slope markings. Second, he subtly equates private and public decision makers without even mentioning their different incentives. In this case, he uses “bureaucrats” to refer to all managers, regardless of whether they manage private or public enterprises.

The distinction matters. The case of ski-slope markings is the market principle at work. Skiers want to know the difficulty of slopes, and so the owners of ski resorts provide it. They have a profit incentive to do so. This is not at all coercive, and it is no more “paternalist” than a restaurant identifying the vegetarian dishes.

Public bureaucrats don’t have the same incentives at all. They don’t get punished by consumers for failing to provide information, or for providing the wrong information. They don’t suffer if they listen to the wrong experts. They face no competition from alternative providers of their service. They get to set their own standards for “success,” and if they fail, they can use that to justify a larger budget.

And Thaler knows this, because these are precisely the arguments made by the “critics” to whom he is responding. His response is just a dodge, enabled by his facile use of language and his continuing indifference – dare I say hostility? – to the distinction between public and private.

In the second of the two posts, Whitman says:

The advocates of libertarian paternalism have taken great pains to present their position as one that does not foreclose choice, and indeed even adds choice. But this is entirely a matter of presentation. They always begin with non-coercive and privately adopted measures, such as the ski-slope markings in Thaler’s NY Times article. And when challenged, they resolutely stick to these innocuous examples (see this debate between Thaler and Mario Rizzo, for example). But if you read Sunstein & Thaler’s actual publications carefully, you will find that they go far beyond non-coercive and private measures. They consciously construct a spectrum of “libertarian paternalist” policies, and at one end of this spectrum lies an absolutely ban on certain activities, such as motorcycling without a helmet. I’m not making this up!…

[A]s Sunstein & Thaler’s published work clearly indicates, this kind of policy [requiring banks to offer “plain vanilla” mortgages] is the thin end of the wedge. The next step, as outlined in their articles, is to raise the cost of choosing other options. In this case, the government could impose more and more onerous requirements for opting out of the “plain vanilla” mortgage: you must fill out extra paperwork, you must get an outside accountant, you must have a lawyer present, you must endure a waiting period, etc., etc. Again, this is not my paranoid imagination at work. S&T have said explicitly that restrictions like these would count as “libertarian paternalism” by their definition….

The problem is that S&T’s “libertarian paternalism” is used almost exclusively to advocate greater intervention, not less. I have never, for instance, seen S&T push for privatization of Social Security or vouchers in education. I have never seen them advocate repealing a blanket smoking ban and replacing it with a special licensing system for restaurants that want to allow their customers to smoke. If they have, I would love to see it.

In their articles, S&T pay lip service to the idea that libertarian paternalism lies between hard paternalism and laissez faire, and thus that it could in principle be used to expand choice. But look at the actual list of policies they’ve advocated on libertarian paternalist grounds, and see where their real priorities lie.

S&T are typical “intellectuals,” in that they presume to know how others should lead their lives — a distinctly non-libertarian attitude. It is, in fact, a hallmark of “liberalism.” In an earlier post I had this to say about the founders of “liberalism” — John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hill Green, and Leonard Trelawney Hobhouse:

[W]e are met with (presumably) intelligent persons who believe that their intelligence enables them to peer into the souls of others, and to raise them up through the blunt instrument that is the state.

And that is precisely the mistake that lies at heart of what we now call “liberalism” or “progressivism.”  It is the three-fold habit of setting oneself up as an omniscient arbiter of economic and social outcomes, then castigating the motives and accomplishments of the financially successful and socially “well placed,” and finally penalizing financial and social success through taxation and other regulatory mechanisms (e.g., affirmative action, admission quotas, speech codes, “hate crime” legislation”). It is a habit that has harmed the intended beneficiaries of government intervention, not just economically but in other ways, as well….

The other ways, of course, include the diminution of social liberty, which is indivisible from economic liberty.

Just how dangerous to liberty are S&T? Thaler is an influential back-room operator, with close ties to the Obama camp. Sunstein is a long-time crony and adviser who now heads the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, where he has an opportunity to enforce “libertarian paternalism”:

…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.

It’s just another step beyond McCain-Feingold, isn’t it?

Thus is the tyranny of “libertarian paternalism.” And thus does the death-spiral of liberty proceed.