No Tears for Cass Sunstein

Cass Sunstein is, among many things, the co-author (with Richard Thaler). of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. One reviewer says this about the book:

Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler contend that the way public choices are framed and presented goes a long way toward determining the kinds of decisions people make. Summarizing some four decades of research in what they call “the emerging science of choice,” they show that people do not always act logically or in their own best interests….

We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, they point out, but studies show that the choices we make tend to be unrealistically optimistic, biased toward the status quo, and undercut by a subtle and unthinking conformity.

What the research suggests, Sunstein and Thaler say, is that “choice architecture — like the architecture of a well-designed public space — can guide, or “nudge,” people toward making better choices. A nudge is a way of organizing and presenting choices “that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives,” according to Sunstein and Thaler….

By understanding the power of nudges, they argue, “choice architects” — those charged with the responsibility of organizing the context in which people make decisions — can help to coax people into making decisions that serve them better.

A key to nudging is an old technique known as framing: presenting options in a way that makes the presenter’s preferred option more attractive than the others. A clever used-car salesman, for example, will size up your preferences and pocketbook. He will then prepare you to make an offer on a car at the high end of your price range, or even above it, by showing you less-expensive cars that he believes you won’t like. When he takes you to the car that makes your eyes light up, you are so enchanted by it (because it’s so much better than the ones you’ve already seen) that you hardly blink at the sticker price. If you do make an offer that’s below the sticker price, the best you will do is arrive at the salesman’s reserve price — the lowest offer that he can accept. And you will probably end up paying a lot more than the reserve price. The mirror-image approach, which a salesman may use instead, is to start well above your price range, whet your appetite for something above your price range, and snag you with something that’s still above it but looks good to you because it’s cheaper than what you’ve already seen. The same techniques are employed by clever salesmen of all kinds, including — notably — real-estate salesmen.

I have addressed at length the political aspects of Sunstein and Thaler’s version of the framing technique (and other manipulative tricks), which they call “libertarian paternalism”. (See the list of related posts, below.) My bottom line: There is nothing “libertarian” about pushing people in the direction that you think is best for them. (Though it has become characteristically “libertarian” to urge the state to enact laws — same-sex marriage, for example — that trample on long-established, voluntary social norms and by their enactment to enable state persecution of persons whose beliefs are at odds with “libertarian” views.)

But I have digressed. A writer who seems bent on garnering sympathy for Sunstein uses framing as a way of trying to deflect much-deserved blame for Sunstein’s foray into authoritarianism. I am referring to Andrew Marantz, whose article “How a Liberal Scholar of Conspiracy Theories Became the Subject of a Right-Wing Conspiracy Theory” (New Yorker, December 27, 2017):

In 2010, Marc Estrin, a novelist and far-left activist from Vermont, found an online version of a paper by Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School and the most frequently cited legal scholar in the world. The paper, called “Conspiracy Theories,” was first published in 2008, in a small academic journal called the Journal of Political Philosophy. In it, Sunstein and his Harvard colleague Adrian Vermeule attempted to explain how conspiracy theories spread, especially online. At one point, they made a radical proposal: “Our main policy claim here is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories.” The authors’ primary example of a conspiracy theory was the belief that 9/11 was an inside job; they defined “cognitive infiltration” as a program “whereby government agents or their allies (acting either virtually or in real space, and either openly or anonymously) will undermine the crippled epistemology of believers by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups.”

Nowhere in the final version of the paper did Sunstein and Vermeule state the obvious fact that a government ban on conspiracy theories would be unconstitutional and possibly dangerous. (In a draft that was posted online, which remains more widely read, they emphasized that censorship is “inconsistent with principles of freedom of expression,” although they “could imagine circumstances in which a conspiracy theory became so pervasive, and so dangerous, that censorship would be thinkable.”)* “I was interested in the mechanisms by which information, whether true or false, gets passed along and amplified,” Sunstein told me recently. “I wanted to know how extremists come to believe the warped things they believe, and, to a lesser extent, what might be done to interrupt their radicalization. But I suppose my writing wasn’t very clear.”

On the contrary, Sunstein’s writing was quite clear. So clear that even leftists were alarmed by it. Returning to Marantz’s account:

When Barack Obama became President, in 2009, he appointed Sunstein, his friend and former colleague at the University of Chicago Law School, to be the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. The O.I.R.A. reviews drafts of federal rules, and, using tools such as cost-benefit analysis, recommends ways to make them more efficient. O.I.R.A. administrator is the sort of in-the-weeds post that even lifelong technocrats might find unglamorous; Sunstein had often described it as his “dream job.” He took a break from academia and moved to Washington, D.C. It soon became clear that some of his published views, which he’d thought of as “maybe a bit mischievous, but basically fine, within the context of an academic journal,” could seem far more nefarious in the context of the open Internet.

Estrin, who seems to have been the first blogger to notice the “Conspiracy Theories” paper, published a post in January, 2010, under the headline “Got Fascism?” “Put into English, what Sunstein is proposing is government infiltration of groups opposing prevailing policy,” he wrote on the “alternative progressive” Web site the Rag Blog. Three days later, the journalist Daniel Tencer (Twitter bio: “Lover of great narratives in all their forms”) expanded on Estrin’s post, for Raw Story. Two days after that, the civil-libertarian journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote a piece for Salon headlined “Obama Confidant’s Spine-Chilling Proposal.” Greenwald called Sunstein’s paper “truly pernicious,” concluding, “The reason conspiracy theories resonate so much is precisely that people have learned—rationally—to distrust government actions and statements. Sunstein’s proposed covert propaganda scheme is a perfect illustration of why that is.” Sunstein’s “scheme,” as Greenwald put it, wasn’t exactly a government action or statement. Sunstein wasn’t in government when he wrote it, in 2008; he was in the academy, where his job was to invent thought experiments, including provocative ones. But Greenwald was right that not all skepticism is paranoia.

And then:

Three days after Estrin’s post was published on the Rag Blog, the fire jumped to the other side of the road. Paul Joseph Watson, writing for the libertarian conspiracist outfit InfoWars, linked to Estrin’s post and riffed on it, in a free-associative mode, for fifteen hundred words. “It is a firmly established fact that the military-industrial complex which also owns the corporate media networks in the United States has numerous programs aimed at infiltrating prominent Internet sites and spreading propaganda to counter the truth,” Watson wrote. His boss at InfoWars, Alex Jones, began expanding on this talking point on his daily radio show: “Cass Sunstein says ban conspiracy theories, and that’s whatever he says it is. That’s on record.”

At the time, Glenn Beck hosted both a daily TV show on Fox News and a syndicated radio show; according to a Harris poll, he was the country’s second-favorite TV personality, after Oprah Winfrey. Beck had been delivering impassioned rants against Sunstein for months, calling him “the most dangerous man in America.” Now he added the paper about conspiracy theories to his litany of complaints. In one typical TV segment, in April of 2010, he devoted several minutes to a close reading of the paper, which lists five possible ways that a government might respond to conspiracy theories, including banning them outright. “The government should ban them,” Beck said, over-enunciating to express his incredulity. “How a government with an amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech bans a conspiracy theory is absolutely beyond me, but it’s not beyond a great mind and a great thinker like Cass Sunstein.” In another show, Beck insinuated that Sunstein had been inspired by Edward Bernays, the author of a 1928 book called “Propaganda.” “I got a flood of messages that night, saying, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself, you’re a disciple of Bernays,’ ” Sunstein recalled. “The result was that I was led to look up this interesting guy Bernays, whom I might not have heard of otherwise.”

For much of 2010 and 2011, Sunstein was such a frequent target on right-wing talk shows that some Tea Party-affiliated members of Congress started to invoke his name as a symbol of government overreach. Earlier in the Obama Administration, Beck had targeted Van Jones, now of CNN, who was then a White House adviser on green jobs. After a few weeks of Beck’s attacks, Jones resigned. “Then Beck made it sort of clear that he wanted me to be next,” Sunstein said. “It wasn’t a pleasant fact, but I didn’t see what I could do about it. So I put it out of my mind.”

Sunstein was never asked to resign. He served as the head of O.I.R.A. for three years, then returned to Harvard, in 2012. Two years later, he published an essay collection called “Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas.” The first chapter was a revised version of the “Conspiracy Theories” paper, with several qualifications added and with Vermeule’s name removed. But the revisions did nothing to improve Sunstein’s standing on far-right talk shows, where he had already earned a place, along with Saul Alinsky and George Soros and Al Gore, in the pantheon of globalist bogeymen. Beck referred to Sunstein as recently as last year, on his radio show, while discussing the Obama Administration’s “propaganda” in favor of the Iran nuclear deal. “We no longer have Jefferson and Madison leading us,” Beck said. “We have Saul Alinsky and Cass Sunstein. Whatever it takes to win, you do.” Last December, Alex Jones—who is, improbably, now taken more seriously than Beck by many conservatives, including some in the White House—railed against a recent law, the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act, claiming, speciously, that it would “completely federalize all communications in the United States” and “put the C.I.A. in control of media.” According to Jones, blame for the law rested neither with the members of Congress who wrote it nor with President Obama, who signed it. “I was sitting here this morning . . . And I keep thinking, What are you looking at that’s triggered a memory here?” Jones said. “And then I remembered, Oh, my gosh! It’s Cass Sunstein.”

Cue the tears for Sunstein:

Recently, on the Upper East Side, Sunstein stood behind a Lucite lectern and gave a talk about “#Republic.” Attempting to end on a hopeful note, he quoted John Stuart Mill: “It is hardly possible to overrate the value . . . of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves.” He then admitted, with some resignation, that this describes the Internet we should want, not the Internet we have.

After the talk, we sat in a hotel restaurant and ordered coffee. Sunstein has a sense of humor about his time in the spotlight—what he calls not his fifteen minutes of fame but his Two Minutes Hate, an allusion to “1984”—and yet he wasn’t sure what lessons he had learned from the experience, if any. “I can’t say I spent much time thinking about it, then or now,” he said. “The rosy view would be that it says something hopeful about us—about Americans, that is. We’re highly distrustful of anything that looks like censorship, or spying, or restriction of freedom in any way. That’s probably a good impulse.” He folded his hands on the table, as if to signal that he had phrased his thoughts as diplomatically as possible.

I’m not buying it. Sunstein deserves every bit of blame that came his way, and I certainly wouldn’t buy a car or house from him. He was attacked from the left and right for good reason, and portraying his attackers as kooks and extremists doesn’t change the facts of the matter. Sunstein’s 2010 article wasn’t a one-off thing. Six years earlier he published “The Future of Free Speech” in the March-April 2004 issue of The Little Magazine, a South Asian journal (thus the British English spellings in the quotations below). Hold your nose and follow Sunstein’s argument in these quotations from “The Future of Free Speech”:

My purpose here is to cast some light on the relationship between democracy and new communications technologies. I do so by emphasising the most striking power provided by emerging technologies: the growing power of consumers to “filter” what it is that they see. In the extreme case, people will be fully able to design their own communications universe. They will find it easy to exclude, in advance, topics and points of view that they wish to avoid. I will also provide some notes on the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.

An understanding of the dangers of filtering permits us to obtain a better sense of what makes for a well-functioning system of free expression. Above all, I urge that in a heterogeneous society, such a system requires something other than free, or publicly unrestricted, individual choices. On the contrary, it imposes two distinctive requirements. First, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance…. Second, many or most citizens should have a range of common experiences. Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a much more difficult time addressing social problems; people may even find it hard to understand one another….

Imagine … a system of communications in which each person has unlimited power of individual design…. Our communications market is moving rapidly toward this apparently utopian picture…. [A]s of this writing, a number of newspapers allow readers to create filtered versions, containing exactly what they want, and excluding what they do not want….

I seek to defend a particular conception of democracy — a deliberative conception — and to evaluate, in its terms, the outcome of a system with perfect power of filtering. I also mean to defend a conception of freedom, associated with the deliberative conception of democracy, and oppose it to a conception that sees consumption choices by individuals as the very embodiment of freedom….

The US Supreme Court has … held that streets and parks must be kept open to the public for expressive activity. Hence governments are obliged to allow speech to occur freely on public streets and in public parks — even if many citizens would prefer to have peace and quiet, and even if it seems irritating to come across protesters and dissidents whom one would like to avoid….

A distinctive feature of this idea is that it creates a right of speakers’ access, both to places and to people. Another distinctive feature is that the public forum doctrine creates a right, not to avoid governmentally imposed penalties on speech, but to ensure government subsidies of speech…. Thus the public forum represents one place in which the right to free speech creates a right of speakers’ access to certain areas and also demands public subsidy of speakers….

[T]he public forum doctrine increases the likelihood that people generally will be exposed to a wide variety of people and views. When you go to work, or visit a park, it is possible that you will have a range of unexpected encounters, however fleeting or seemingly inconsequential. You cannot easily wall yourself off from contentions or conditions that you would not have sought out in advance, or that you would have chosen to avoid if you could. Here too the public forum doctrine tends to ensure a range of experiences that are widely shared — streets and parks are public property — and also a set of exposures to diverse circumstances. A central idea here must be that these exposures help promote understanding and perhaps in that sense freedom. And all of these points can be closely connected to democratic ideals, as we soon see….

The public forum doctrine is an odd and unusual one, especially insofar as to create a kind of speakers’ access right to people and places, subsidised by taxpayers. But the doctrine is closely associated with a longstanding constitutional ideal, one that is far from odd: that of republican self-government. From the beginning, the American constitutional order was designed to be a republic, as distinguished from a monarchy or a direct democracy. We cannot understand the system of freedom of expression, and the effects of new communications technologies and filtering, without reference to this ideal….

The specifically American form of republicanism … involved an effort to create a “deliberative democracy.” In this system, representatives would be accountable to the public at large, but there was also supposed to be a large degree of reflection and debate, both within the citizenry and within government itself. The system of checks and balances — evident in the bicameral system, the Senate, the Electoral College and so forth — had, as its central purpose, a mechanism for promoting deliberation within the government as a whole….

We are now in a position to distinguish between two conceptions of sovereignty. The first involves consumer sovereignty; the second involves political sovereignty. The first ideal underlies enthusiasm for “the Daily Me.” The second ideal underlies the democratic challenge to this vision, on the ground that it is likely to undermine both self-government and freedom, properly conceived.

Of course, the two conceptions of sovereignty are in potential tension. A commitment to consumer sovereignty may well compromise political sovereignty — if, for example, free consumer choices result in insufficient understanding of public problems, or if they make it difficult to have anything like a shared culture….

Group polarisation is highly likely to occur on the Internet. Indeed, it is clear that the Internet is serving, for many, as a breeding ground for extremism, precisely because like-minded people are deliberating with one another, without hearing contrary views….

The most reasonable conclusion is that it is extremely important to ensure that people are exposed to views other than those with which they currently agree, in order to protect against the harmful effects of group polarisation on individual thinking and on social cohesion….

The adverse effects of group polarization…show that with respect to communications, consumer sovereignty is likely to produce serious problems for individuals and society at large — and these problems will occur by a kind of iron logic of social interactions….

The phenomenon of group polarisation is closely related to the widespread phenomenon of ‘social cascades’. No discussion of social fragmentation and emerging communications technologies would be complete without a discussion of that phenomenon….

[O]ne group may end up believing something and another the exact opposite, because of rapid transmission of information within one group but not the other. In a balkanised speech market, this danger takes on a particular form: different groups may be led to dramatically different perspectives, depending on varying local cascades.

I hope this is enough to demonstrate that for citizens of a heterogeneous democracy, a fragmented communications market creates considerable dangers. There are dangers for each of us as individuals; constant exposure to one set of views is likely to lead to errors and confusions. And to the extent that the process makes people less able to work cooperatively on shared problems, there are dangers for society as a whole.

In a heterogeneous society, it is extremely important for diverse people to have a set of common experiences….

This is hardly a suggestion that everyone should be required to participate in the same thing. We are not speaking of requirements at all. In any case a degree of plurality, with respect to both topics and points of view, is also highly desirable. My only claim is that a common set of frameworks and experiences is valuable for a heterogeneous society, and that a system with limitless options, making for diverse choices, will compromise the underlying values.

The points thus far raise questions about whether a democratic order is helped or hurt by a system of unlimited individual choice with respect to communications. It is possible to fear that such a system will produce excessive fragmentation, with group polarisation as a frequent consequence. It is also possible to fear that such a system will produce too little by way of solidarity goods, or shared experiences. But does the free speech principle bar government from responding to the situation? If that principle is taken to forbid government from doing anything to improve the operation of the speech market, the answer must be a simple Yes.

I believe, however, that this is a crude and unhelpful understanding of the free speech principle, one that is especially ill-suited to the theoretical and practical challenges of the next decades and beyond. If we see the Free Speech Principle through a democratic lens, we will be able to make a great deal more progress.

There should be no ambiguity on the point: free speech is not an absolute. The government is allowed to regulate speech by imposing neutral rules of property law, telling would-be speakers that they may not have access to certain speech outlets…. Government is permitted to regulate unlicensed medical advice, attempted bribery, perjury, criminal conspiracies (“Let’s fix prices!”), threats to assassinate the President, criminal solicitation (“Might you help me rob this bank?”), child pornography, false advertising, purely verbal fraud (“This stock is worth $100,000”), and much more…. And if one or more of these forms of speech can be regulated, free speech absolutism is a kind of fraud, masking the real issues that must be confronted in separating protected speech from unprotected speech….

If the discussion thus far is correct, there are three fundamental concerns from the democratic point of view. These include:
• the need to promote exposure to materials, topics, and positions that people would not have chosen in advance, or at least enough exposure to produce a degree of understanding and curiosity;
• the value of a range of common experiences;
• the need for exposure to substantive questions of policy and principle, combined with a range of positions on such questions.

Of course, it would be ideal if citizens were demanding, and private information providers were creating, a range of initiatives designed to alleviate the underlying concerns…. But to the extent that they fail to do so, it is worthwhile to consider government initiatives designed to pick up the slack….

1. Producers of communications might be subject … to disclosure requirements…. On a quarterly basis, they might be asked to say whether and to what extent they have provided educational programming for children, free airtime for candidates, and closed captioning for the hearing impaired. They might also be asked whether they have covered issues of concern to the local community and allowed opposing views a chance to be heard…. Websites might be asked to say if they have allowed competing views a chance to be heard….

2. Producers of communications might be asked to engage in voluntary self-regulation…. [T]here is growing interest in voluntary self-regulation for both television and the Internet…. Any such code could, for example, call for an opportunity for opposing views to speak, or for avoiding unnecessary sensationalism, or for offering arguments rather than quick ‘sound-bytes’ whenever feasible.

3. The government might subsidise speech, as, for example, through publicly subsidised programming or Websites…. Perhaps government could subsidise a ‘’ designed to promote debate on public issues among diverse citizens — and to create a right of access to speakers of various sorts.

4. If the problem consists in the failure to attend to public issues, the 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…. 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….

5. The government might impose “must carry” rules on highly partisan Websites, designed to ensure that viewers learn about sites containing opposing views…. Here too the ideal situation would be voluntary action. But if this proves impossible, it is worth considering regulatory alternatives….

Emerging technologies are hardly an enemy here…. But to the extent that they weaken the power of general interest intermediaries, and increase people’s ability to wall themselves off from topics and opinions that they would prefer to avoid, they create serious dangers….

So let’s all put on our brown shirts and march to a public rally at which we will be “allowed” to shout: “Dark is light; black is white; Sunstein is right.”

I once said that Cass Sunstein is to the integrity of constitutional law as Pete Rose is to the integrity of baseball. It’s worse than that: Sunstein’s willingness to abuse constitutional law in the advancement of a statist agenda reminds me of Hitler’s abuse of German law to advance his repugnant agenda.

There is remorse for having done something wrong, and there is chagrin at having been caught doing something wrong. Sunstein’s conversation-over-coffee with Marantz reads very much like the latter.

Related posts:
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
Sunstein and Executive Power
The Feds and “Libertarian Paternalism”
Another Voice Against the New Paternalism
A Further Note about “Libertarian” Paternalism
Apropos Paternalism
Another Entry in the Sunstein Saga
The Sunstein Effect Is Alive and Well in the White House
Sunstein the Fatuous
Richard Thaler, Nobel Laureate
Thaler’s Non-Revolution in Economics
Another (Big) Problem with “Nudging”

Not-So-Random Thoughts (XXII)

This is a long-overdue entry; the previous one was posted on October 4, 2017. Accordingly, it is a long entry, consisting of these parts:

Censorship and Left-Wing Bias on the Web

The Real Collusion Story

“Suicide” of the West

Evolution, Intelligence, and Race

Will the Real Fascists Please Stand Up?


Empathy Is Over-Rated



It’s a hot topic these days. See, for example, this, this, this, this, and this. Also, this, which addresses Google’s slanting of search results about climate research. YouTube is at it, too.

A lot of libertarian and conservative commentators are loath to demand governmental intervention because the censorship is being committed by private companies: Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube, et al. Some libertarians and conservatives are hopeful that libertarian-conservative options will be successful (e.g., George Gilder). I am skeptical. I have seen and tried some of those options, and they aren’t in the same league as the left-wingers, which have pretty well locked up users and advertisers. (It’s called path-dependence.) And even if they finally succeed in snapping up a respectable share of the information market, the damage will have been done; libertarians and conservatives will have been marginalized, criminalized, and suppressed.

The time to roll out the big guns is now, as I explain here:

Given the influence that Google and the other members of the left-wing information-technology oligarchy exert in this country, that oligarchy is tantamount to a state apparatus….

These information-entertainment-media-academic institutions are important components of what I call the vast left-wing conspiracy in America. Their purpose and effect is the subversion of the traditional norms that made America a uniquely free, prosperous, and vibrant nation….

What will happen in America if that conspiracy succeeds in completely overthrowing “bourgeois culture”? The left will frog-march America in whatever utopian direction captures its “feelings” (but not its reason) at the moment…

Complete victory for the enemies of liberty is only a few election cycles away. The squishy center of the American electorate — as is its wont — will swing back toward the Democrat Party. With a Democrat in the White House, a Democrat-controlled Congress, and a few party switches in the Supreme Court, the dogmas of the information-entertainment-media-academic complex will become the law of the land….

[It is therefore necessary to] enforce the First Amendment against information-entertainment-media-academic complex. This would begin with action against high-profile targets (e.g., Google and a few large universities that accept federal money). That should be enough to bring the others into line. If it isn’t, keep working down the list until the miscreants cry uncle.

What kind of action do I have in mind?…

Executive action against state actors to enforce the First Amendment:

Amendment I to the Constitution says that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech”.

Major entities in the telecommunications, news, entertainment, and education industries have exerted their power to suppress speech because of its content. (See appended documentation.) The collective actions of these entities — many of them government- licensed and government-funded — effectively constitute a governmental violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech (See Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944) and Marsh v. Alabama, 326 U.S. 501 (1946).)

And so on. Read all about it here.


Not quite as hot, but still in the news, is Spygate. Collusion among the White House, CIA, and FBI (a) to use the Trump-Russia collusion story to swing the 2016 election to Clinton, and (b) failing that, to cripple Trump’s presidency and provide grounds for removing him from office. The latest twist in the story is offered by Byron York:

Emails in 2016 between former British spy Christopher Steele and Justice Department official Bruce Ohr suggest Steele was deeply concerned about the legal status of a Putin-linked Russian oligarch, and at times seemed to be advocating on the oligarch’s behalf, in the same time period Steele worked on collecting the Russia-related allegations against Donald Trump that came to be known as the Trump dossier. The emails show Steele and Ohr were in frequent contact, that they intermingled talk about Steele’s research and the oligarch’s affairs, and that Glenn Simpson, head of the dirt-digging group Fusion GPS that hired Steele to compile the dossier, was also part of the ongoing conversation….

The newly-released Ohr-Steele-Simpson emails are just one part of the dossier story. But if nothing else, they show that there is still much for the public to learn about the complex and far-reaching effort behind it.

My take is here. The post includes a long list of related — and enlightening — reading, to which I’ve just added York’s piece.


Less “newsy”, but a hot topic on the web a few weeks back, is Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West. It received mixed reviews. It is also the subject of an excellent non-review by Hubert Collins.

Here’s my take:

The Framers held a misplaced faith in the Constitution’s checks and balances (see Madison’s Federalist No. 51 and Hamilton’s Federalist No. 81). The Constitution’s wonderful design — containment of a strictly limited central government through horizontal and vertical separation of powers — worked rather well until the Progressive Era. The design then cracked under the strain of greed and the will to power, as the central government began to impose national economic regulation at the behest of muckrakers and do-gooders. The design then broke during the New Deal, which opened the floodgates to violations of constitutional restraint (e.g., Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare,  the vast expansion of economic regulation, and the destruction of civilizing social norms), as the Supreme Court has enabled the national government to impose its will in matters far beyond its constitutional remit.

In sum, the “poison pill” baked into the nation at the time of the Founding is human nature, against which no libertarian constitution is proof unless it is enforced resolutely by a benign power.

See also my review essay on James Burnham’s Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism.


Evolution is closely related to and intertwined with intelligence and race. Two posts and a page of mine (here, here, and here) delve some of the complexities. The latter of the two posts draws on David Stove‘s critique of evolutionary theory, “So You Think You Are a Darwinian?“.

Fred Reed is far more entertaining than Stove, and no less convincing. His most recent columns on evolution are here and here. In the first of the two, he writes this:

What are some of the problems with official Darwinism? First, the spontaneous generation of life has not been replicated…. Nor has anyone assembled in the laboratory a chemical structure able to metabolize, reproduce, and thus to evolve. It has not been shown to be mathematically possible….

Sooner or later, a hypothesis must be either confirmed or abandoned. Which? When? Doesn’t science require evidence, reproducibility, demonstrated theoretical possibility? These do not exist….

Other serious problems with the official story: Missing intermediate fossils–”missing links”– stubbornly remain missing. “Punctuated equilibrium,” a theory of sudden rapid evolution invented to explain the lack of fossil evidence, seems unable to generate genetic information fast enough. Many proteins bear no resemblance to any others and therefore cannot have evolved from them. On and on.

Finally, the more complex an event, the less likely it is to  occur by chance. Over the years, cellular mechanisms have been found to be  ever more complex…. Recently with the discovery of epigenetics, complexity has taken a great leap upward. (For anyone wanting to subject himself to such things, there is The Epigenetics Revolution. It is not light reading.)

Worth noting is that  that the mantra of evolutionists, that “in millions and millions and billions of years something must have evolved”–does not necessarily hold water. We have all heard of Sir James Jeans assertion that a monkey, typing randomly, would eventually produce all the books in the British Museum. (Actually he would not produce a single chapter in the accepted age of the universe, but never mind.) A strong case can be made that spontaneous generation is similarly of mathematically vanishing probability. If evolutionists could prove the contrary, they would immensely strengthen their case. They haven’t….

Suppose that you saw an actual monkey pecking at a keyboard and, on examining his output, saw that he was typing, page after page, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, with no errors.

You would suspect fraud, for instance that the typewriter was really a computer programmed with Tom. But no, on inspection you find that it is a genuine typewriter. Well then, you think, the monkey must be a robot, with Tom in RAM. But  this too turns out to be wrong: The monkey in fact is one. After exhaustive examination, you are forced to conclude that Bonzo really is typing at random.

Yet he is producing Tom Sawyer. This being impossible, you would have to conclude that something was going on that you did not understand.

Much of biology is similar. For a zygote, barely visible, to turn into a baby is astronomically improbable, a suicidal assault on Murphy’s Law. Reading embryology makes this apparent. (Texts are prohibitively expensive, but Life Unfolding serves.) Yet every step in the process is in accord with chemical principles.

This doesn’t make sense. Not, anyway, unless one concludes that something deeper is going on that we do not understand. This brings to mind several adages that might serve to ameliorate our considerable arrogance. As Haldane said, “The world is not only queerer than we think, but queerer than we can think.” Or Fred’s Principle, “The smartest of a large number of hamsters is still a hamster.”

We may be too full of ourselves.

On the subject of race, Fred is no racist, but he is a realist; for example:

We have black football players refusing to stand for the national anthem.  They think that young black males are being hunted down by cops. Actually of  course black males are hunting each other down in droves but black football players apparently have no objection to this. They do not themselves convincingly suffer discrimination. Where else can you get paid six million green ones a year for grabbing something and running? Maybe in a district of jewelers.

The non-standing is racial hostility to whites. The large drop in attendance of games, of television viewership, is racial blowback by whites. Millions of whites are thinking, that, if America doesn’t suit them, football players can afford a ticket to Kenya. While this line of reasoning is tempting, it doesn’t really address the problem and so would be a waste of time.

But what, really, is the problem?

It is one that dare not raise its head: that blacks cannot compete with whites, Asians, or Latin-Americans. Is there counter-evidence? This leaves them in an incurable state of resentment and thus hostility. I think we all know this: Blacks know it, whites know it, liberals know it, and conservatives know it. If any doubt this, the truth would be easy enough to determine with carefully done tests. [Which have been done.] The furious resistance to the very idea of measuring intelligence suggests awareness of the likely outcome. You don’t avoid a test if you expect good results.

So we do nothing while things worsen and the world looks on astounded. We have mob attacks by Black Lives Matter, the never-ending Knockout Game, flash mobs looting stores and subway trains, occasional burning cities, and we do nothing. Which makes sense, because there is nothing to be done short of restructuring the country.

Absolute, obvious, unacknowledged disaster.

Regarding which: Do we really want, any of us, what we are doing? In particular, has anyone asked ordinary blacks, not black pols and race hustlers. “Do you really want to live among whites, or would you prefer a safe middle-class black neighborhood? Do your kids want to go to school with whites? If so, why? Do you want them to? Why? Would you prefer black schools to decide what and how to teach your children? Keeping whites out of it? Would you prefer having only black police in your neighborhood?”

And the big one: “Do you, and the people you actually know in your neighborhood, really want integration? Or is it something imposed on you by oreo pols and white ideologues?”

But these are things we must never think, never ask.

Which brings me to my most recent post about blacks and crime, which is here. As for restructuring the country, Lincoln saw what was needed.

The touchy matter of intelligence — its heritability and therefore its racial component — is never far from my thoughts. I commend to you Gregory Hood’s excellent piece, “Forbidden Research: How the Study of Intelligence is Crippled by Ideology“. Hood mentions some of the scientists whose work I have cited in my writings about intelligence and its racial component. See this page, for example, which give links to several related posts and excerpts of relevant research about intelligence. (See also the first part of Fred Reed’s post “Darwin’s Vigilantes, Richard Sternberg, and Conventional Pseudoscience“.)

As for the racial component, my most recent post on the subject (which provides links to related posts) addresses the question “Why study race and intelligence?”. Here’s why:

Affirmative action and similar race-based preferences are harmful to blacks. But those preferences persist because most Americans do not understand that there are inherent racial differences that prevent blacks, on the whole, from doing as well as whites (and Asians) in school and in jobs that require above-average intelligence. But magical thinkers (like [Professor John] McWhorter) want to deny reality. He admits to being driven by hope: “I have always hoped the black–white IQ gap was due to environmental causes.”…

Magical thinking — which is rife on the left — plays into the hands of politicians, most of whom couldn’t care less about the truth. They just want the votes of those blacks who relish being told, time and again, that they are “down” because they are “victims”, and Big Daddy government will come to their rescue. But unless you are the unusual black of above-average intelligence, or the more usual black who has exceptional athletic skills, dependence on Big Daddy is self-defeating because (like a drug addiction) it only leads to more of the same. The destructive cycle of dependency can be broken only by willful resistance to the junk being peddled by cynical politicians.

It is for the sake of blacks that the truth about race and intelligence ought to be pursued — and widely publicized. If they read and hear the truth often enough, perhaps they will begin to realize that the best way to better themselves is to make the best of available opportunities instead of moaning abut racism and relying on preferences and handouts.


I may puke if I hear Trump called a fascist one more time. As I observe here,

[t]he idea … that Trump is the new Hitler and WaPo [The Washington Post] and its brethren will keep us out of the gas chambers by daring to utter the truth (not)…. is complete balderdash, inasmuch as WaPo and its ilk are enthusiastic hand-maidens of “liberal” fascism.

“Liberals” who call conservatives “fascists” are simply engaging in psychological projection. This is a point that I address at length here.

As for Mr. Trump, I call on Shawn Mitchell:

A lot of public intellectuals and writers are pushing an alarming thesis: President Trump is a menace to the American Republic and a threat to American liberties. The criticism is not exclusively partisan; it’s shared by prominent conservatives, liberals, and libertarians….

Because so many elites believe Trump should be impeached, or at least shunned and rendered impotent, it’s important to agree on terms for serious discussion. Authoritarian means demanding absolute obedience to a designated authority. It means that somewhere, someone, has unlimited power. Turning the focus to Trump, after 15 months in office, it’s impossible to assign him any of those descriptions….

…[T]here are no concentration camps or political arrests. Rather, the #Resistance ranges from fervent to rabid. Hollywood and media’s brightest stars regularly gather at galas to crudely declare their contempt for Trump and his deplorable supporters. Academics and reporters lodged in elite faculty lounges and ivory towers regularly malign his brains, judgment, and temperament. Activists gather in thousands on the streets to denounce Trump and his voters. None of these people believe Trump is an autocrat, or, if they do they are ignorant of the word’s meaning. None fear for their lives, liberty, or property.

Still, other elites pile on. Federal judges provide legal backup, contriving frivolous theories to block administrations moves. Some rule Trump lacks even the authority to undo by executive order things Obama himself introduced by executive order. Governors from states like California, Oregon and New York announce they will not cooperate with administration policy (current law, really) on immigration, the environment, and other issues.

Amidst such widespread rebellion, waged with impunity against the constitutionally elected president, the critics’ dark warnings that America faces a dictator are more than wrong; they are surreal and damnable. They are what amounts to the howl of that half the nation still refusing to accept election results it dislikes.

Conceding Trump lacks an inmate or body count, critics still offer theories to categorize him in genus monsterus. The main arguments cite Trump’s patented belligerent personality and undisciplined tweets, his use of executive orders; his alleged obstruction in firing James Comey and criticizing Robert Mueller, his blasts at the media, and his immigration policies. These attacks weigh less than the paper they might be printed on.

Trump’s personality doubtless is sui generis for national office. If he doesn’t occasionally offend listeners they probably aren’t listening. But so what? Personality is not policy. A sensibility is not a platform, and bluster and spittle are not coercive state action. The Human Jerk-o-meter could measure Trump in the 99th percentile, and the effect would not change one law, eliminate one right, or jail one critic.

Executive Orders are misunderstood. All modern presidents used them. There is nothing wrong in concept with executive orders. Some are constitutional some are not. What matters is whether they direct executive priorities within U.S. statutes or try to push authority beyond the law to change the rights and duties of citizens. For example, a president might order the EPA to focus on the Clean Air Act more than the Clean Water Act, or vice versa. That is fine. But, if a president orders the EPA to regulate how much people can water their lawns or what kind of lawns to plant, the president is trying to legislate and create new controls. That is unconstitutional.

Many of Obama’s executive orders were transgressive and unconstitutional. Most of Trump’s executive orders are within the law, and constitutional. However that debate turns out, though, it is silly to argue the issue implicates authoritarianism.

The partisan arguments over Trump’s response to the special counsel also miss key points. Presidents have authority to fire subordinates. The recommendation authored by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein provides abundant reason for Trump to have fired James Comey, who increasingly is seen as a bitter anti-Trump campaigner. As for Robert Mueller, criticizing is not usurping. Mueller’s investigation continues, but now readily is perceived as a target shoot, unmoored from the original accusations about Russia, in search of any reason to draw blood from Trump. Criticizing that is not dictatorial, it is reasonable.

No doubt Trump criticizes the media more than many modern presidents. But criticism is not oppression. It attacks not freedom of the press but the credibility of the press. That is civically uncomfortable, but the fact is, the war of words between Trump and the media is mutual. The media attacks Trump constantly, ferociously and very often inaccurately as Mollie Hemingway and Glenn Greenwald document from different political perspectives. Trump fighting back is not asserting government control. It is just challenging media assumptions and narratives in a way no president ever has. Reporters don’t like it, so they call it oppression. They are crybabies.

Finally, the accusation that Trump wants to enforce the border under current U.S. laws, as well as better vet immigration from a handful of failed states in the Middle East with significant militant activity hardly makes him a tyrant. Voters elected Trump to step up border enforcement. Scrutinizing immigrants from a handful of countries with known terrorist networks is not a “Muslim ban.” The idea insults the intelligence since there are about 65 majority Muslim countries the order does not touch.

Trump is not Hitler. Critics’ attacks are policy disputes, not examples of authoritarianism. The debate is driven by sore losers who are willing to erode norms that have preserved the republic for 240 years.



For a complete change of pace I turn to a post by Bill Vallicella about consciousness:

This is an addendum to Thomas Nagel on the Mind-Body Problem. In that entry I set forth a problem in the philosophy of mind, pouring it into the mold of an aporetic triad:

1) Conscious experience is not an illusion.

2) Conscious experience has an essentially subjective character that purely physical processes do not share.

3) The only acceptable explanation of conscious experience is in terms of physical properties alone.

Note first that the three propositions are collectively inconsistent: they cannot all be true.  Any two limbs entail the negation of the remaining one. Note second that each limb exerts a strong pull on our acceptance. But we cannot accept them all because they are logically incompatible.

This is one hard nut to crack.  So hard that many, following David Chalmers, call it, or something very much like it, the Hard Problem in the philosophy of mind.  It is so hard that it drives some into the loony bin. I am thinking of Daniel Dennett and those who have the chutzpah to deny (1)….

Sophistry aside, we either reject (2) or we reject (3).  Nagel and I accept (1) and (2) and reject (3). Those of a  scientistic stripe accept (1) and (3) and reject (2)….

I conclude that if our aporetic triad has a solution, the solution is by rejecting (3).

Vallicella reaches his conclusion by subtle argumentation, which I will not attempt to parse in this space.

My view is that (2) is false because the subjective character of conscious experience is an illusion that arises from the physical properties of the central nervous system. Consciousness itself is not an illusion. I accept (1) and (3). For more, see this and this.


Andrew Scull addresses empathy:

The basic sense in which most of us use “empathy” is analogous to what Adam Smith called “sympathy”: the capacity we possess (or can develop) to see the world through the eyes of another, to “place ourselves in his situation . . . and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence from some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them”….

In making moral choices, many would claim that empathy in this sense makes us more likely to care about others and to consider their interests when choosing our own course of action….

Conversely, understanding others’ feelings doesn’t necessarily lead one to treating them better. On the contrary: the best torturers are those who can anticipate and intuit what their victims most fear, and tailor their actions accordingly. Here, Bloom effectively invokes the case of Winston Smith’s torturer O’Brien in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, who is able to divine the former’s greatest dread, his fear of rats, and then use it to destroy him.

Guest blogger L.P. addressed empathy in several posts: here, here, here, here, here, and here. This is from the fourth of those posts:

Pro-empathy people think less empathetic people are “monsters.” However, as discussed in part 2 of this series, Baron-Cohen, Kevin Dutton in The Wisdom of Psychopaths, and other researchers establish that empathetic people, particularly psychopaths who have both affective and cognitive empathy, can be “monsters” too.

In fact, Kevin Dutton’s point about psychopaths generally being able to blend in and take on the appearance of the average person makes it obvious that they must have substantial emotional intelligence (linked to cognitive empathy) and experience of others’ feelings in order to mirror others so well….

Another point to consider however, as mentioned in part 1, is that those who try to empathize with others by imagining how they would experience another’s situation aren’t truly empathetic. They’re just projecting their own feelings onto others. This brings to mind Jonathan Haidt’s study on morality and political orientation. On the “Identification with All of Humanity Scale,” liberals most strongly endorsed the dimension regarding identification with “everyone around the world.” (See page 25 of “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The psychological roots of an individualist ideology.”) How can anyone empathize with billions of persons about whom one knows nothing, and a great number of whom are anything but liberal?

Haidt’s finding is a terrific example of problems with self-evaluation and self-reported data – liberals overestimating themselves in this case. I’m not judgmental about not understanding everyone in the world. There are plenty of people I don’t understand either. However, I don’t think people who overestimate their ability to understand people should be in a position that allows them to tamper with, or try to “improve,” the lives of people they don’t understand….

I conclude by quoting C. Daniel Batson who acknowledges the prevailing bias when it comes to evaluating altruism as a virtue. This is from his paper, “Empathy-Induced Altruistic Motivation,” written for the Inaugural Herzliya Symposium on Prosocial Motives, Emotions, and Behavior:

[W]hereas there are clear social sanctions against unbridled self-interest, there are not clear sanctions against altruism. As a result, altruism can at times pose a greater threat to the common good than does egoism.


I have addressed Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s “libertarian” paternalism and “nudging in many posts. (See this post, the list at the bottom of it, and this post.) Nothing that I have written — clever and incisive as it may be — rivals Deirdre McCloskey’s take on Thaler’s non-Nobel prize, “The Applied Theory of Bossing“:

Thaler is distinguished but not brilliant, which is par for the course. He works on “behavioral finance,” the study of mistakes people make when they talk to their stock broker. He can be counted as the second winner for “behavioral economics,” after the psychologist Daniel Kahneman. His prize was for the study of mistakes people make when they buy milk….

Once Thaler has established that you are in myriad ways irrational it’s much easier to argue, as he has, vigorously—in his academic research, in popular books, and now in a column for The New York Times—that you are too stupid to be treated as a free adult. You need, in the coinage of Thaler’s book, co-authored with the law professor and Obama adviser Cass Sunstein, to be “nudged.” Thaler and Sunstein call it “libertarian paternalism.”*…

Wikipedia lists fully 257 cognitive biases. In the category of decision-making biases alone there are anchoring, the availability heuristic, the bandwagon effect, the baseline fallacy, choice-supportive bias, confirmation bias, belief-revision conservatism, courtesy bias, and on and on. According to the psychologists, it’s a miracle you can get across the street.

For Thaler, every one of the biases is a reason not to trust people to make their own choices about money. It’s an old routine in economics. Since 1848, one expert after another has set up shop finding “imperfections” in the market economy that Smith and Mill and Bastiat had come to understand as a pretty good system for supporting human flourishing….

How to convince people to stand still for being bossed around like children? Answer: Persuade them that they are idiots compared with the great and good in charge. That was the conservative yet socialist program of Kahneman, who won the 2002 Nobel as part of a duo that included an actual economist named Vernon Smith…. It is Thaler’s program, too.

Like with the psychologist’s list of biases, though, nowhere has anyone shown that the imperfections in the market amount to much in damaging the economy overall. People do get across the street. Income per head since 1848 has increased by a factor of 20 or 30….

The amiable Joe Stiglitz says that whenever there is a “spillover” — my ugly dress offending your delicate eyes, say — the government should step in. A Federal Bureau of Dresses, rather like the one Saudi Arabia has. In common with Thaler and Krugman and most other economists since 1848, Stiglitz does not know how much his imagined spillovers reduce national income overall, or whether the government is good at preventing the spill. I reckon it’s about as good as the Army Corps of Engineers was in Katrina.

Thaler, in short, melds the list of psychological biases with the list of economic imperfections. It is his worthy scientific accomplishment. His conclusion, unsupported by evidence?

It’s bad for us to be free.

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article referred to Thaler’s philosophy as “paternalistic libertarianism.” The correct term is “libertarian paternalism.”

No, the correct term is paternalism.

I will end on that note.

Another (Big) Problem with “Nudging”

I’ve written recently about Richard Thaler’s Nobel prize and my objections to his (and Cass Sunstein’s) cheerleading for “nudging”. That’s a polite term for the use of business and government power to get people to make the “right” decisions. (“Right” according to Thaler, at least.) It’s the government part that really bothers me. Ilya Somin of The Volokh Conspiracy is of the same mind:

Thaler and many other behavioral economics scholars argue that government should intervene to protect people against their cognitive biases, by various forms of paternalistic policies. In the best-case scenario, government regulators can “nudge” us into correcting our cognitive errors, thereby enhancing our welfare without significantly curtailing freedom.

But can we trust government to be less prone to cognitive error than the private-sector consumers whose mistakes we want to correct? If not, paternalistic policies might just replace one form of cognitive bias with another, perhaps even worse one. Unfortunately, a recent study suggests that politicians are prone to severe cognitive biases too – especially when they consider ideologically charged issues….

Even when presented additional evidence to help them correct their mistakes, Dahlmann and Petersen found that the politicians tended to double down on their errors rather than admit they might have been wrong….

Politicians aren’t just biased in their evaluation of political issues. Many of them are ignorant, as well. For example, famed political journalist Robert Kaiser found that most members of Congress know little about policy and “both know and care more about politics than about substance.”….

But perhaps voters can incentivize politicians to evaluate evidence more carefully. They can screen out candidates who are biased and ill-informed, and elect knowledgeable and objective decision-makers. Sadly, that is unlikely to happen, because the voters themselves also suffer from massive political ignorance, often being unaware of even very basic facts about public policy.

Of course, the Framers of the Constitution understood all of this in 1787. And they wisely acted on it by placing definite limits on the power of the central government. The removal of those limits, especially during and since the New Deal, is a constitutional tragedy.

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