I was surfing around Arts & Letters Daily yesterday as I waited for my short story to go live online (What do you mean you haven’t read it yet? Repent!), and I saw a piece from the New York Review of Books by our current incarnation of Mrs. Grundy, Cass Sunstein. Sunstein speaks rather kindly of a book by Sarah Conly called Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism, plugging his own concept of the “nudge” along the way. And to be fair, Sunstein’s idea of government as hectoring nag (what, to steal a line from P.J. O’Rourke, many men refer to as “my first wife”) actually seems positively pleasant compared to Conly’s argument, which is that government can legitimately compel us to act in what it sees as our best interest. Left to our own devices, we are only too likely to make bad decisions, and therefore it is right to compel us to take the right path.
Sunstein observes that this flies in the face of a significant current of American thought, which he traces back to Mill’s harm principle:
When society seeks to overrule the individual’s judgment, Mill wrote, it does so on the basis of “general presumptions,” and these “may be altogether wrong, and even if right, are as likely as not to be misapplied to individual cases.” If the goal is to ensure that people’s lives go well, Mill contends that the best solution is for public officials to allow people to find their own path. Here, then, is an enduring argument, instrumental in character, on behalf of free markets and free choice in countless situations, including those in which human beings choose to run risks that may not turn out so well.
Mill’s claim has a great deal of intuitive appeal.
Indeed. But this is where things get interesting. Sunstein continues:
But is it right? That is largely an empirical question, and it cannot be adequately answered by introspection and intuition. In recent decades, some of the most important research in social science, coming from psychologists and behavioral economists, has been trying to answer it. That research is having a significant influence on public officials throughout the world. Many believe that behavioral findings are cutting away at some of the foundations of Mill’s harm principle, because they show that people make a lot of mistakes, and that those mistakes can prove extremely damaging. [Emphasis mine — Mondo]
I disagree with Sunstein’s contention that the question is empirical, because I find his position materialistic and reductive. He seems to reduce individual humans to the status of a sort of livestock at best, or an inventory of widgets at worst, either devoid of will or irrelevant. The first position is certainly counter to my lived experience, and the second is simply monstrous. Either way, it reduces humanity to something (in B.F. Skinner’s words) “beyond freedom and dignity,” and something to be managed by the State, as if it were State property. From there, Sunstein would suggest, it only seems reasonable for the State to manage it as it chooses. The difference between Sunstein and Conly is one of degree, not of kind. Either way, we are sheep to be guided (one hopes) kindly.
From this rather dreary view, we are warmed by the words of Thomas Sowell, who writes at National Review Online this morning:
Professor Sunstein is undoubtedly correct that “people make a lot of mistakes.” Most of us can look back over our own lives and see many mistakes, including some that were very damaging.
What Cass Sunstein does not tell us is what sort of creatures, other than people, are going to override our mistaken decisions for us. That is the key flaw in the theory and agenda of the Left.
Thanks, Dr. Sowell.