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In The Republic, Plato argued that philosophers must be made kings for the ideal city-state to be born. In the pages of The New Republic, Cass Sunstein argues for the benevolent paternalism of the nanny state and its philosopher-kings. It’s an old Sunstein theme and the one that brought him to the attention of politicians who dearly love to imagine themselves in the roles of those philosopher-kings. One of those politicians, Barack Obama, even made Sunstein his Regulatory Czar.
Sunstein debuted as the philosopher-king of the technocrats with his book Nudge. Now having left his D.C. Czardom, Sunstein is back with yet another book. Simpler: The Future of Government is an even more naked Nudge. The premise once again is that government should manipulate people into doing what is best for them.
Simpler is even more shameless than Nudge because it ignores every lesson of progressive overreach in the last hundred years and blatantly celebrates the power of government to control everyone’s lives. Nudge urged technocratic manipulation while Simpler has Cass Sunstein patting himself on the back for his government tenure as a philosopher-czar.
Cass Sunstein once again lavishes us with tales of how a change here or there can force or nudge people into making the right decision. And in his New Republic article, “Why Paternalism is Your Friend”, he does his cheerful best to suggest that everyone should learn to love the power of the nanny state. The theme that Sunstein continually returns to is that all people make mistakes so why shouldn’t the people on top help them make better decisions.
It’s a persuasive argument if you happen to be an elitist, but unlike Plato, Cass Sunstein fails to make the case for his brand of philosopher-kings or philosopher-czars. What makes a Cass Sunstein qualified to perch on the edge of his ivory tower Olympus and make the decisions that ordinary mortal men are unqualified to make for themselves?
"Do people’s choices always promote their welfare?" Sunstein inquires. The answer is naturally in the negative. "We can be tempted by emotional appeals. Sometimes we do not take steps that would make our lives go a lot better."
And that’s all well and good, but why is Cass Sunstein immune to these forces of human nature? What power imbues him with the godlike knowledge to sit in a lavish office nudging people all day without being tempted by emotional appeals?
Does graduating Harvard qualify one for the position of philosopher-czar? What about teaching at the University of Chicago? Sunstein spends a great deal of time describing how people in the ideal city-state of a technocratic utopia can be ruled, but he hardly spends any time at all on the rulers. Instead he distinguishes between the paternalism of the ends and means, with the former deciding what people’s goals should be and the latter acting as non-consensual life coaches helping people achieve what they already want whether they want it or not.
But who decides what people want and who is to say that the decider knows the best way to help them? Sunstein takes the superior wisdom of the paternalists for granted. He assumes that his New Republic readers will agree that there is a superior elite capable of making superior decisions. Sunstein only addresses the philosophical objections to allowing that elite to make the right choices on behalf of all mankind.
William F. Buckley famous said, “I would rather be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand people on the faculty of Harvard University.”
Sunstein proves him right by assuming the existence of a superior technocratic elite capable of using behavioral economics to compel people to make the right decisions and skips straight to the question of whether they should use their amazing powers to make us into healthier people driving cars with better gas mileage or whether they should let us go our own way to learn from our mistakes while they look down on us and do whatever the gods of the Harvard squash team do in their spare time.
While Sunstein ponders free will, it never occurs to him that perhaps the dream team of Sunstein and Obama is not as smart as it thinks it is and the paternalists are not an elite, they are arrogant buffoons whose power is second only to their incompetence.
Bloomberg, the man whose cold stony profile gazes down at us from Sunstein’s article, was elected to be an education mayor and is now reduced to running gun control ads in Illinois and fighting the soda wars while the education system that was the centerpiece of his administration is a failure and a fraud.
While Bloomberg plotted strategy for dealing with Global Warming, he had no plan for dealing with a major snowstorm. Neither did he have one for dealing with a hurricane last year. Like so many men who would be gods, Bloomberg is guilty of hubris and like most elitists; he isn’t as smart as he thinks he is.
Neither is Cass Sunstein. The philosopher-czar’s latest book is a 26 dollar work of self-congratulation that the reader is expected to pay for. This nicely sums up his career. But what does Sunstein have to congratulate himself on?
A book like Simpler would be obnoxious enough even if it had come from the veteran of a successful administration, but the only thing that Obama Inc. has succeeded at is getting reelected.
Obamacare was a disaster. So was anything else that Sunstein touched. The Regulatory Czar boasts of transparency, but even mainstream media outlets and liberal magazines have blasted the lack of that same quality in the corridors of Obama Inc. Sunstein speaks of simplifying government, but he departs a government that is more expensive and more confusing.
In the introduction to Simpler, titled “The Cockpit of the Regulatory Store”, Sunstein claims that it is a book about making things simpler. But that’s exactly what it isn’t. Like most technocrats, Sunstein is incapable of simplicity. He boasts of a “simplification” program for the “issuance” of orders in plain language without realizing that he’s using clunky bureaucratese.
The paternalists like Bloomberg and Sunstein promise us that their nudges can force us to make better decisions, but they’re the ones who can’t make better decisions. Soft paternalism tries to bring back the old discredited ideas of progressive power in a sleeker technocratic guise, but the reason those ideas were discredited isn’t only because they were totalitarian, but because they didn’t work.
Sunstein, like Bloomberg and like his old boss in D.C., is a failure trying to dress up his failure in buzzwords. The philosopher-czar who once tried to manipulate the lives of hundreds of millions is reduced to trying to manipulate a handful of readers into believing that his failure was a brilliant success.
That is not only Cass Sunstein’s epitaph; these are the stone letters graven on the tombstone of the left.
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