Former Obama administration regulatory Czar and current law professor Cass Sunstein has a deal for you.
He recognizes that you tend to make mistakes. He knows that some of these mistakes can be very costly. So, in exchange for your freedom to make your own mistakes, he will sell you the superior wisdom of government bureaucrats. These latter individuals know what is best for you because they will be armed with the latest “facts” produced by behavioral economics.
Sunstein has teamed up with behavioral economist Richard Thaler and written a book about it. The book is called Nudge. I have had my say here and here.
If it sounds like a Faustian bargain, that’s because it is.
A few days ago Thomas Sowell offered a devastating critique of the Sunstein proposal:
John Stuart Mill's classic essay "On Liberty" gives reasons why some people should not be taking over other people's decisions about their own lives. But Professor Cass Sunstein of Harvard has given reasons to the contrary. He cites research showing "that people make a lot of mistakes, and that those mistakes can prove extremely damaging."
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.
Implicit in the wide range of efforts on the left to get government to take over more of our decisions for us is the assumption that there is some superior class of people who are either wiser or nobler than the rest of us.
Yes, we all make mistakes. But do governments not make bigger and more catastrophic mistakes?
Obviously, totalitarian governments make mistakes on a grand scale, but enlightened American bureaucrats, for reasons that defy reason, make their fair share:
Even in the United States, government policies in the 1930s led to crops being plowed under, thousands of little pigs being slaughtered and buried, and milk being poured down sewers, at a time when many Americans were suffering from hunger and diseases caused by malnutrition.
The Great Depression of the 1930s, in which millions of people were plunged into poverty in even the most prosperous nations, was needlessly prolonged by government policies now recognized in retrospect as foolish and irresponsible.
But why are governments so prone to make worse mistakes?
One of the key differences between mistakes that we make in our own lives and mistakes made by governments is that bad consequences force us to correct our own mistakes. But government officials cannot admit to making a mistake without jeopardizing their whole careers.
To be fair, when we make mistakes we are not “forced” to correct them. We do so to the extent that we cannot find someone else to blame.
When government officials make a mistake, admitting failure often spells career suicide.
To take the most egregious modern example, Mao Zedong launched a Cultural Revolution because he refused to accept responsibility for the failure of his Great Leap Forward. Mao’s policy had helped produce a famine that starved tens of millions of people to death.
Finally, Sowell addresses the question of why so many Americans are so happy to be cared for by the government. He knows, as we all know, that government has gained more power because the American people have voted for it.
Too many among today's intellectual elite see themselves as our shepherds and us as their sheep. Tragically, too many of us are apparently willing to be sheep, in exchange for being taken care of, being relieved of the burdens of adult responsibility and being supplied with "free" stuff paid for by others.
True enough, as far as it goes. Yet, as Arthur Brooks wrote in the Wall Street Journal this morning, large numbers of Americans count caring for others as an important moral value. A majority of Americans believed that Mitt Romney did not care about the poor or the disadvantaged.
Wrong. As New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has shown in his research on 132,000 Americans, care for the vulnerable is a universal moral concern in the U.S. In his best-selling 2012 book "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion," Mr. Haidt demonstrated that citizens across the political spectrum place a great importance on taking care of those in need and avoiding harm to the weak. By contrast, moral values such as sexual purity and respect for authority—to which conservative politicians often give greater emphasis—resonate deeply with only a minority of the population. Raw money arguments, e.g., about the dire effects of the country's growing entitlement spending, don't register morally at all.
You will be thinking what Sowell was thinking. Providing people with job opportunities shows far more genuine care than showering them with government benefits.
And yet, Brooks is also right. As a Republican he is trying to show his party the way to a more successful future. He knows, as most Republicans should know, that sex is a losing political issue.
It is probably true that we cannot afford the nation’s entitlement spending, but still, most people believe that we can ever run out of money. Cutting spending and practicing fiscal austerity might be good policy, but they look uncaring.
Making an issue of entitlement spending does not register among the electorate. Like it or not, Paul Ryan did not help the Romney ticket. His Ayn Rand message, widely touted by elite Republican intellectuals, did not work politically.
No one ever accused Ayn Rand of caring.