Thursday, April 30, 2009

Meet Cass Sunstein: Your "Choice Architect"

Socialism is not a movement of the people. It is a movement of the intellectuals, originated, led and controlled by the intellectuals, carried by them out of their stuffy ivory towers into those bloody fields of practice where they unite with their allies and executors: the thugs.

Ayn Rand, "The Monument Builders", The Virtue of Selfishness, 1962

There is a frightening intellectual movement being carried from the "stuffy ivory towers" of the intellectuals to the "bloody fields of practice" as it has evidently found an adoring admirer in the White House. It is a movement that represents evil, but not garden variety evil - rather, it represents Ellsworth Toohey-Dr. Floyd Ferris level evil. In other words, it is not the typical brute political opportunism of, say, the Clinton-Ted Kennedy variety, but a movement that threatens a profound abrogation of freedom, deliberately and willfully wrapped in an erudite, pseudo-scientific package.

Cass Sunstein, author of
Nudge and Republic.com 2.0, is a major figure in this movement. Now, normally, the predictable rantings of a left-wing law professor known for his "libertarian paternalism" who advocates a government imposed "fairness doctrine for the internet", claims that animals should be able to bring lawsuits, and supports civility checks for emails, would hardly be newsworthy. However, given that Obama has nominated him to head the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, we should take notice. Secondly, Sunstein's ideas are hardly original and he is part of a larger movement that must be exposed and refuted. His ideas are a hybrid of every irrational philosophic movement since Plato, and as such, represents a cashing-in on modern philosophic trends.

Nudge, in which Sunstein and Thaler discuss "choice architecture" was reviewed by Eric Daniels (see below for links and discussion of Daniel's review and see previous link for Amazon interview with authors...). I began going through Republic.com 2.0 and quickly became overwhelmed as virtually every paragraph is quotable in the sense that it exemplifies a disturbing level of evil. To truly and properly analyze this book and offer a first rate refutation would take months so I will offer a few points that may be insightful and hopefully this will serve as another wake up call in addition to those offered by others who have written on this topic [update: see C. August's post on Sunstein at Titanic Deck Chairs]. Essentially, I believe that Sunstein's ideas embody three principal philosophies: Platonism, pragmatism, and determinism.

First, in true Platonic form (excuse the pun), Sunstein relies on a distinction between what he calls the "consumer" and "the citizen" arguing that our behavior as consumers differs from our behavior as "citizens". In other words, as "consumers" we act selfishly and might indulge in the inane mindlessness of "infotainment" or "sports" news whereas when we act as "citizens" we adopt the high minded aspirations of the thinker busily considering such monumental topics as "environmental protection" or "antidiscrimination". Note the Platonic separation of the world into a sort of "imperfect" realm of immediate, brute reality which we approach as a "consumer" and the higher, idealized realm of "the citizen" [all emphases mine]:

Consumers are not citizens, and it is a large error to conflate the two. One reason for the disparity is that the process of democratic choice often elicits people’s aspirations. When we are thinking about what was as a nation should do-rather than what each of us as consumer should buy-we are often led to think of our larger, long-term goals. We may therefore hope to promote a high-quality communications market even if, as consumers, we seek “infotainment.” Within the democratic process, we are also able to act as a group and not limited to our option as individuals. Acting as a group, we are thus in a position to solve various obstacles to dealing properly with issues that we cannot, without great difficult, solve on our own.

So, where does Sunstein go with this distinction? Sunstein is concerned not just about too little information but about too much information, that is, information that is not properly filtered by a Platonic Philosopher King such as himself:

When people’s preferences are a product of excessively limited options, there is a problem from the standpoint of freedom, and we do freedom a grave disservice by insisting on respect for preferences. When options are plentiful, things are much better. But there is also a problem, from the standpoint of freedom, when people’s past choices lead to the development of preferences that limit their own horizons and their capacity for citizenship.

In other words, too many options lead the "consumers" astray, "limits their own horizons", and may lead them not to make "proper" choices in their role as "citizens". What is the remedy for that?:

These points obviously bear on a number of questions outside of the area of communications, such as environmental protection and antidiscrimination law. In many contexts, people, acting in their capacity as citizens, favor measures that diverge from the choices they make in their capacity as consumers. Of course it is important to impose constraints, usually in the form of rights, on what political majorities may do under this rationale. But if I am correct, one thing is clear: a system of limitless individual choices with respect to communications is not necessarily in the interest of citizenship and self-government, and efforts to reduce the resulting problems ought not to be rejected in freedom’s name.

And just what would such an "effort to reduce the resulting problems" mean in practice? He doesn't say. Sunstein not only decries too much information, but he is concerned that the internet just makes it too darned easy to indulge in "consumption" that behaviorists have shown do not really make us happy:

For present purposes my conclusions are simple. The Internet unquestionably makes purchases easier and more convenient for consumers. To this extent, it is a genuine boon for most of us. But it is less of a boon than we usually think, particularly to the extent that it accelerates the consumption treadmill without making life much better for consumers of most goods. If citizens are reflective about their practices and their lives, they are entirely aware of this fact. As citizens, we might well choose to slow down the treadmill, or to ensure that resources that now keep it moving will be devoted to better uses. And insofar as citizens are attempting to accomplish that worth goal, the idea of liberty should hardly stand in the way.

This is a frightening statement. How could "liberty" stand in the way of an individual making a choice since choice is dependent on liberty. Of course, Sunstein is veiling his actual meaning: that the government has a moral imperative to "ensure that resources..be devoted to better uses." Whose "resources" and how will he determine "better uses" exactly? He doesn't say.

Additionally, Sunstein worries that too much selfish consumption could make us "inert" as "citizens" and furthermore, that the freedom to choose or consume news or information related to important topics in public affairs will close off the "citizen" from more "diverse" points of view and render him an unidealized citizen:

In fact Brandeis can be taken to have offered a conception of the social role of the idealized citizen. For such a citizen, active engagement in politics, at least some of the time, is a responsibility, not just an entitlement. If citizens are “inert,” freedom itself is at risk. If people are constructing a Daily Me that is restricted to sports or to the personal lives of celebrities, they are not operating in the way that citizenship requires. This does not mean that people have to be thinking about public affairs all, most, or even much of the time. But it does mean that each of us has rights and duties as citizens, not simply as consumers. As we will see, active citizen engagement is necessary to promote not only democracy but social well-being too. And in the modern era, one of the most pressing obligations of a citizenry that is not inert is to ensure that “deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary.” For this to happen, it is indispensable to ensure that they system of communications promotes democratic goals. Those goals emphatically require both unchosen exposures and shared experiences.

What exactly is an "unchosen exposure"? He does not say, but I assume it is the premise behind his advocacy of a fairness doctrine for the internet or communications in general. This implies that he advocates the use of government force to compel private owners of media to provide a platform for "opposing" viewpoints which would represent a heinous violation of individual rights. But, not to worry. You see, according to him, the "abstraction called government" shouldn't "move preferences" unless the public desires the government to "counteract the adverse effects of consumer choices" in which case, we should not "disparage" "government meddling":

None of these points means that some abstraction called “government” should feel free to move preferences and beliefs in what it considers to be desirable directions. The central question is whether citizens in a democratic system, aware of the points made thus far, might want to make choices that diverge from those that they make in their capacity as private consumers. Sometimes this does appear to be their desire. What I am suggesting is that when this is the case, there is, in general, no legitimate objection if government responds. The public’s effort to counteract the adverse effects of consumer choices should not be disparaged as a form of government meddling or unacceptable paternalism, at least if the government is democratic, and reacting to the reflective judgments of the citizenry.

If Homeland Security shows up at your door and says it is coming in to "counteract the adverse effects of consumer choices" don't worry - apparently, it is just an abstraction holding a pistol to your head.

In arguing that too much choice actually represents a lack of freedom, Sunstein exposes his two other core premises: determinism coupled with pragmatism. Consider the following quote:

Similar points hold for the world of communications. If people are deprived of access to competing views on public issues, and if as a result they lack a taste for those views, they lack freedom, whatever the nature of their preferences and choices. If people are exposed mostly to sensationalistic coverage of the lives of movie stars, or only to sports, or only to left-of-center views, and never to international issues, their preferences will develop accordingly. If people are mostly watching a conservative station – say, Fox News-they will inevitably be affected by what they see. Whatever one’s political view, there is, in an important respect, a problem from the standpoint of freedom itself. This is so even if people are voluntarily choosing the limited fare.

Note the implication that people need merely be "exposed" to information in order to be influenced. In other words, if Fox News says that 2+2=4 and CNN says that 2+2=5, whoever watches Fox will believe the former and the viewer of CNN the latter. In his view and the view of the behaviorist, people have no ability to discern truth for themselves, i.e., "they will inevitably be affected by what they see." I believe there is a deeper root. As a pragmatist, Sunstein believes there is no actual truth and therefore no principles to induce from facts. Human beings are like lab rats chasing cheese around a maze. And so why should he care what we do? As a pragmatist, Sunstein has accepted the default philosophy of mainstream academics which, in his mind, is unquestionably true, i.e., the ideology of the modern left: Marxism, environmentalism, animal rights, etc. He must get the rats to go Left for the cheese.[update: for more on Sunstein's pragmatism, see Dr. Tara Smith's essay in TOS.]

Also, note how Sunstein's determinism leads him to conclude that "consumers" are somehow "deprived of access to competing views" by virtue of "their lack of taste". In other words, since people are determined by what they see, they will adopt whatever beliefs are offered to them, i.e., by whatever ideas are floating about in the "environment". Therefore, since people are determined in this way, they are by their nature "deprived access to competing views" and "lack freedom, whatever the nature of their preferences and choices." In other words, by our nature, we lack true "freedom" and so Mr. Sunstein must see to it that you have access to competing views (by force if necessary) so you can truly be free!

As a Platonist, Sunstein views himself as a Philosopher King able to divine the ideal forms of morality and politics which he and the chosen few must convey to the masses otherwise distracted by celebrities and sports news. As a pragmatist (or regulator), he must execute concrete actions to bring about the ideal world as revealed to the Left. As a behaviorist, his plans are predicated on the idea that humans must be herded like cattle to partake in "shared experiences" and "unchosen exposures" which will transform them into "ideal" citizens.

Eric Daniels has written two excellent pieces in The Objective Standard regarding this movement. One piece is a book review of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely. The other is a book review of Thaler and Sunsteins Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Daniels thoroughly analyzes this movement and I highly recommend reading these two pieces for more on the philosophy underlying this movement. One excellent point he makes really helped me to understand the fundamental problem in these popular behaviorist books, viz., their flawed understanding of the nature of rationality. In his Ariely review, Daniels writes:

This contradiction between determinism and free will, or fatalism and optimism, is the result of a deeply flawed understanding of rationality. Ariely never explicitly defines rationality, but he claims that being rational means that “we know all the pertinent information about our decisions, that we can calculate the value of different options we face, and that we are cognitively unhindered in weighing the ramifications of each potential choice” (p. 239). Although he believes his experiments show that our irrational behaviors are “systematic and predictable” (p. 239), his working definition of rationality is not that people are capable of making rational choices, but that they do so infallibly. Because people are not infallible, he concludes, they must be inherently irrational. But rationality does not mean infallibility; it means that one is capable of choosing to observe the available facts and go by logic and that one does so. Nor does it preclude the possibility of mistakes; rather, it is the means of detecting and correcting mistakes.

In other words, these behaviorists quote all sorts of studies that show that on average, people will make "sub-optimal" decisions or decisions that are not necessarily in their self-interest as defined by the scientists. They use these observations to claim that human beings are inherently irrational. Many of these studies now form the core of behavioral economics and other fields. Of course, Daniels point is that all these studies show is that people are fallible. "Rationality" is a capacity - it does not necessitate omnipotence. If you would have asked people 2,000 years ago if the earth was flat or if they should use leeches to suck the evil spirits out of their bodies you would have received the wrong answer on average. This reflected people's ignorance at the time. Or, even if people are "hard wired" at some level, meaning that they act partially on the basis of sub-conscious factors, the fact that people can change their behavior and learn from their mistakes is proof of rationality and free will.

Politically, this article points to a site http://www.stopsunstein.com/ in which you can submit petition signatures to the U.S. Senate. I encourage you to stop "consuming" for a minute, be a good "Citizen", and write your Senator opposing the nomination of Cass Sunstein.

10 comments:

C. August said...

Thanks for this analysis. I empathize strongly with your following statement.

I began going through Republic.com 2.0 and quickly became overwhelmed as virtually every paragraph is quotable in the sense that it exemplifies a disturbing level of evil. To truly and properly analyze this book and offer a first rate refutation would take months...I have a four inch thick sheaf of printouts of Sunstein's articles, interviews, etc., all with notations in the margins next to nearly every paragraph... the sheer volume of his output and the immensity of its wrongness is overwhelming. It's so daunting it's hard to know where to start. And frankly, I think that is one of his motives -- deluge by design.

Your identification of the Platonic nature of his thought is the biggest thing I took away from your analysis. It really puts everything in perspective. I said in my first post about Sunstein, when trying to determine what he was after, I brought it down to simple power lust: "The expression (not perversion) of free speech on the Internet is not a threat to democracy, but to the people in power (of which class Sunstein is now a part) and their ability to control what people read, what they say, what they know."

But by calling him a Philosopher King, you have pinpointed the exact nature of his power lust and view of himself as the one true arbiter of how the world should work.

Your comment about the Platonic form of "citizen" was also great. The theme of the "ideal citizen" is one that runs through countless books and articles of his.

"when we act as "citizens" we adopt the high minded aspirations of the thinker busily considering such monumental topics"

He often refers to "deliberative democracy" and how to best design systems and institutions to promote it. As you said, he does not think there is any such thing as objective truth, and such deliberation by "ideal citizens" is intended to tease out some compromise between "polarized enclaves"... unless of course the "extremist enclave" is right, as in the abolitionist movement. How does he know it's right? Your guess is as good as mine.

You asked, what "would such an 'effort to reduce the resulting problems' (of 'too much freedom') mean in practice?"

In a monograph for AEI, titled "Why Groups Go To Extremes," Sunstein addressed this question. To help make sure that the "ideal citizens" don't wall themselves off and develop extreme views that hurt the overall deliberation, he said,

"In terms of institutional design, the most natural response is to try to ensure that members of deliberating groups, whether small or large, will not isolate themselves from competing views. This point has many implications for multimember courts, open primaries, freedom of association, and the architecture of the Internet."

Freedom of association. Of course he doesn't specify how he would like to regulate, through institutional design (choice architecture), the freedom of association and the Internet. But reading between the lines, it's quite obvious.

By the way, everything he writes is intended to focus between the lines. He never _says_ anything of substance. He only implies it or talks around it.

Finally, you asked what he means by an "unchosen exposure." He means "general-interest intermediary" media outlets like a newspaper, where one could stumble upon a competing view. Or public spaces like city parks or sidewalks where you could presumably bump into a marxist and then a christian fundamentalist, both acting like "ideal citizens" and you could all share in the "architecture of serendipity." I'm not kidding. See this review of a speech he gave from Harvard Magazine.

Doug Reich said...

C.

Thanks for your great follow up, links, and reference now on your blog. I have now linked your initial post on Sunstein in mine. Your comments helped me to think through this further and concretized some points, particulary the "details" of what his plans entail. When you say

He never _says_ anything of substance. He only implies it or talks around it.

I think you are exactly right. You have to constantly "read between the lines". If he would just come out and say "look, we're coming to take over...obey!" I would have more respect for him. That's why I made reference to Toohey-Ferris level evil rather than say Cuffy Meigs level evil. He makes you think his ideas are reasonable, balanced but they are mad.

Re Plato, the book title "Republic.com 2.0" is not a coincidence. He tells us flat out he is Platonist and I assume he considers himself to have written the modern sequel to The Republic which of course is Plato's famous work advocating a fascist dictatorship ruled by Philosopher Kings. This is really scary stuff. This guy is mad.

Your comment about "deluge by design" is hilarious. We had the same reaction - his writing is just overwhelming.

Thanks for helping me tag team this issue - we need to keep getting the word out! Keep us posted here on anything more you find or other insights.

C. August said...

Now that you mention the tie between "Republic.com" and Plato's Republic, it's really obvious. But I missed it, and was thinking about our republic, and the implications of the Internet on it. My interpretation is the obvious one, and yours is the more subtle, interesting one.

You said, "If he would just come out and say 'look, we're coming to take over...obey!' " but I don't think that is even his hidden intent. He's so hard to pin down -- which, according to an article I just read from the American Prospect, is something he and Obama pride themselves on -- that it's difficult to say, but I think even though he wants to be Philosopher King, there is a large part of him that just wants to be the academic gadfly.

He has very firm opinions, radically leftist ones, but he has been going well out of is way to present himself as a centrist in the past 5 years or so. He was burned by his "Daily Me" and "Republic.com" radical assertions and has been either backtracking or ignoring them since then. I wonder if, instead of having grand plans to be some sort of ideological dictator, he really just wants to be able to drop "thought bombs" into debates and delight in the chaos it causes. He may even think that he is helping the "deliberative democracy" to reach "collective truth," whatever that means to him.

Related to what Glenn Reynolds said on Instapundit today, he really may be intending to be a good person, trying to help the country in whatever way he thinks is "helpful," but in actuality, he is like the Joker from the recent Batman movie. Perhaps I'm being too cynical, but it seems like he sows intellectual discord just for the sake of seeing the destruction it causes.

C. August said...

One other thing I forgot to mention was that the WorldNetDaily article is, well, inflammatory. It does quote real bits of Sunstein's work, but in the end it's deliberately partisan, and thus undercuts a deeper analysis of the arguments.

99% of your post discusses Sunstein's arguments from his own work, and the WND article is just a catalyst. But those who are moved by partisanship will latch onto the wrong ideas based on seeing WND referenced. I think it's good to distance any rational analysis of these ideas from the ranting of WND.

Doug Reich said...

C.,

Regarding my statement that I would respect him more if he would just come out and say 'look, we're coming to take over...obey!'

You said

"He has very firm opinions, radically leftist ones, but he has been going well out of is way to present himself as a centrist in the past 5 years or so..."

In other words, you seem to be questioning whether he has a secret agenda to rule as I have implied, etc. and you question whether he is sort of a well intentioned albeit nerdy intellectual who really does not seek to rule the earth...

If I'm not characterizing your comments let me know, but if I am, I don't agree for a couple of reasons.

In a previous post, I wrote:

"Obama has stated on several occasions that he is not an advocate of "big government." He is telling the truth. He does not consider his multi-trillion dollar fascist takeover of the U.S. economy to be big government. To him, his policies represent normal government, i.e., his policies are consistent with the given metaphysically unassailable premises of Marxism . Let's hope that he doesn't take a liking to big government."

I believe this principle applies to Sunstein. He does not regard himself as a radical not because he is cloaking a secret agenda but because he really believes his views are moderate. This is entirely consistent with pragmatism. He holds NO firm views on anything because he doesn't think in terms of truth or falsehood - that doesn't exist. Besides, isn't it perfectly obvious that Marxism, environmentalism, and animal rights are unquestionably true?

The big no-no of the modern, pragmatist intellectual is to argue stridently for anything. Such passion is the hallmark of the unsophisticated buffoon who believes in such outdated concepts as truth, principles, and the objectivity of knowledge. No good left wing pragmatist would ever come across as an ideologue or an extremist.

Because they seek compromise and conformity with the opinions of others, they appear to be centrists while in actuality they defend their default position of Marxism and statism.

That is why I said I would respect him more if he brazenly and openly declared war on individual rights. At least he would be offering an argument that could be shown to be false. He would implicitly recognize there is good and evil - although he chose evil. But that is not the way of the pragmatist.

I think it is a grave error to regard these people as centrists or to dismiss them as intellectual gadfly political wanna be's. Ellsworth Toohey fit this profile outwardly. So did Hitler at one point of his life.

Make no mistake, this man is evil. The principle behind his ideas in practice will lead to horror on a Nazi-Soviet Russia scale. For a man of his intelligence, there is simply no excuse. Do not be fooled by the reasonable facade.

Re WND, I am not a fan of it for many reasons but in this case, I think objectivity requires being "inflammatory" so to speak. To be "balanced" or non-partisan would mean being non-objective as Sunstein is truly evil. In other words, I think you can be objective and partisan as a journalist. Now, WND is pretty awful for many different reasons, often because what they report is not true and they have seem to have a religous/apocalyptic thing going on - so, I make that point more as an argument from principle.

Rajesh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rajesh said...

Sunstein says
"The Internet unquestionably makes purchases easier and more convenient for consumers. To this extent, it is a genuine boon for most of us. But it is less of a boon than we usually think, particularly to the extent that it
accelerates the consumption treadmill without making life much better for consumers of most goods."
So is it a boon or not? The consumption treadmill doesn't make life much better? How did he reach such conclusion? According to him then, the life in countries where there is no consumption treadmill should be ideal? So when it suits Obama and his cronies they will ask people to get off this treadmill and in today's recessionary atmosphere they will
exhort people to get on it with a vigor?

I know exactly what he means when he says "resources" and it's "better uses", he means five year plans like the ones in India where he and his ilk will decide the best use for these resources.

And of coarse how can liberty stand in the way of "common good". What he says about consumers and citizens makes me think of China where as a consumer you are free buy whatever but as a "citizen" the govt. "protects" people from this freedom to choose or consume information by deciding to cordon off large portions of Internet. But Sunstein wants more control and wants to dictate the choices of the consumer too.

As for the "unchosen exposure" I know what he means-the shoving down the throat of the "ideal citizens" the govt. propaganda. Till a decade or so back in India before the start of movies in cinema halls, the management was forced to show the govt propaganda documentaries.

As C.August said he doesn't say anything directly; like him saying that govt. should not feel free to move in "desirable" directions (whose desires?) but if the citizens wish (what they might not as a consumer) then the govt. commands. What this champion of democracy means is let the mob rule. Wow! this dual identity stuff is making me dizzy, which is probably what he wants.


"As a behaviorist, his plans are predicated on the idea that humans must be herded like cattle to partake in "shared experiences" and "unchosen exposures" which will transform them into "ideal" citizens."What about those who refuse to be transformed into "ideal citizens"- Will they be sent to Russian style Siberian "conditioning camps". What worries me is will an average American be able to see what future have these Czars got planned for them before things get out of hand.

C. August said...

BTW, Doug, my lack of response to your last comment should be taken as a concession of your point.

I think the fact that Sunstein has been attempting to put on the centrist invisibility cloak over the past few years was a calculated attempt to position himself for the Supreme Court, after his views encountered significant criticism.

You said "To him, his policies represent normal government, i.e., his policies are consistent with the given metaphysically unassailable premises of Marxism." And later said of Sunstein's viewpoint, "Besides, isn't it perfectly obvious that Marxism, environmentalism, and animal rights are unquestionably true? "

Perhaps he was shocked by the negative reaction from all fronts to his Republic.com ideas against free speech, and has thus been working for the better part of a decade to both show that he has "learned the folly of his ways," and at the same time, lay the groundwork to implement those very policies without ever coming out and saying it.

And finally, whether or not he sees himself as a "nerdy intellectual" with good intentions, you are dead right about the real world impact of his ideas.

Ariel said...

Sunstein has always creeped me out, but is hardly something new. For example conservative George Will's communitarianism is of a piece with Sunstein's.

The difference is that Sunstein's new perch in Washington gives him the ominous opportunity to put this evil doctrine into practice.

Anonymous said...

"Your identification of the Platonic nature of his thought is the biggest thing I took away from your analysis. It really puts everything in perspective. I said in my first post about Sunstein, when trying to determine what he was after, I brought it down to simple power lust: "The expression (not perversion) of free speech on the Internet is not a threat to democracy, but to the people in power (of which class Sunstein is now a part) and their ability to control what people read, what they say, what they know."

Sunstein's simply lusting after power? What a great straw man! And of course an easy way to dismiss his actual arguments.

Reading Sunstein, Obama, et al as Platonists shows a defiant ignorance of what Platonism actually is. But what should we expect from bloggers who quote the notable "rationalist" Ayn Rand all over their site?