Monday, March 4, 2013

Thomas Sowell vs. Cass Sunstein

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?

Sowell answers:

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.

Sowell explains:

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.

Brooks writes:

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.


Jeff Dorsai said...

actually alot of people accused Ann of caring ... it just so easy to demogog her as uncaring that many people miss the point of her writings ... including you ...

JPL17 said...

@Jeff: It's also very easy to criticize people for missing the point of Ayn Rand's writings, without stating what one thinks the point of her writings IS ... which is what you just did.

Care to enlighten us on Ayn Rand's "caring" side?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

No one is saying that free enterprise is ultimately beneficial, and therefore, caring. I said as much in the post.

Yet, as JPL17 suggests, many people have gotten the impression that Ayn Rand's philosophy is not caring and many people got the impression that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan did not care. It may just be a lot of PR, but public perception drives voters, and, as Brooks suggests, on that score Republicans are coming up short in the caring dept.

Sam L. said...

The Government cannot care. Not in their portfolio. Or their lexicon. Does the DMV "care"?

Sam L. said...

Oh, and Mitt demonstrated caring many, many times--but wouldn't tell us about it. His own horn-blower, he's not.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I suspect that the "caring" idea is covering up something else... some kind of failure to connect with people.

Anonymous said...

This is such an interesting conversation, on many levels. It relates to many of the posts and comments on this blog.

On the Ayn Rand point, I think what she railed against was a dishonest, novel packaging of despotism: altruism and "caring" for one's fellow man as a veil for tyranny over the mind of man. What she opposed was forced altruism, and it's an important distinction. Altruism that is forced is inauthentic, and the use of force to create altruism makes the term meaningless. All her arguments come back to this point. I believe that Ayn Rand did care about others, in her own way, but that it was her choice. And having a choice about where to direct your altruistic efforts/impulses is what her philosophy was all about. They're not mutually exclusive. And if you read about her childhood, and the misanthropic Bolshevik cause of "Peace, Bread and Land" became (neither peace, bread, nor land), I think you can appreciate why she found political altruism to be the monstrosity that it is.

I share Paul Ryan's view of Ayn Rand: that her books were an excellent discovery and outlet for me at a critical age when I was looking at different ways to lead my life. I, too, am Catholic, and respect the Church's mission and theology as supporting me in leading a meaningful life. That said, many from the "social justice" crowd (I've never understood why "justice" was not enough) use their influence to force people to support social programs that have little efficacy for those they purport to champion. Going further, many social justice charities lobby for government programs that benefit them with direct cash infusions. So they take people's money and give it to supposedly rational people like Cass Sustein who, by virtue of his argument, doesn't believe that learned people (like him, of course) make mistakes, and that lots of learned people acting together make even fewer mistakes. Experience teaches us that this is not only false, but preposterous. Despotism always begins with one phrase: "Those people..."

Now we get to the main point here, and that is whether Mitt Romney "cared" about people or whether the perception of him as uncaring mattered. The answer is yes and yes. I agree with Sam, that government is an "it" (just as much as a corporation, which the Lefties decry), and is incapable of caring. That's the rub, isn't it? Politicians walk around dispensing with other people's money under the banner of caring for people. Yet they can't. really, can they? Caring does not come from a third party. It comes from another person, not a check. It's an abstraction, just as the portrait of Romney as "uncaring" was an abstraction manufactured by the Obama communications machine, one that went unanswered for months (which is unconscionable, and the source of Romeny's defeat).

The dehumanization of the opposition is a key component of modern politics. Mitt Romney doesn't care about his dog, Paul Ryan is an Objectivist monster, etc. Republicans counter with reasoned, intellectual arguments and lose to emotional attacks. Why? Because human beings are emotional first. Best to get with the program.

Cont'd below...

Anonymous said...

... Cont'd from above

Yes, Stuart, you are correct, it is a failure to connect with people and share what you are FOR (rather than against), and why it will benefit them in the long run. Right now, Republicans are standing on principle and philosophy , and principle isn't accessible to most people. In fact, most Republican communication doesn't demonstrate any understanding of people. The Republicans talk about arcane things like the tax core, rules, regulations, procedures, etc. What about PEOPLE??? Where is the impact on PEOPLE? Nowhere. We have a President who is trying to make the sequestration hit people as hard as possible, and I hear nothing from Republicans about the real PEOPLE it is hurting. That's why they're losing the public on all this. They look like disinterested philosophers or scientists.

Which brings me to the piece on Wittgenstein from yesterday, which was fabulous. Wittgenstein challenged the idea that all this scientism and mathematical mumbo-jumbo, masquerading as philosophy, can have any relevance for humanity. Has "truth" become an abstraction? It certainly has. We deny people's experience so that we can serve some logical construct that fails to deliver on its theoretical claims of explaining human behavior and meaning. It is tied to language. It's not that the truth is relative, it's that it is based on experience, the daily experience of billions of people. People look to philosophy and theology to give meaning to their lives, to supplement their experience with a shared truth that connects us to something beyond ourselves. Cass Sunstein think he and his ilk have cornered the market on truth, and that they have an operating field theory on humanity. That's bunk. And Wittgenstein's perspective is the reason that I find things like Ayn Rand's fiction and Catholic theology and the Founding Fathers' political philosophy sensible and worthwhile. But I don't have to pick one and become a mindless ideologue about it.

Life is about learning and experiencing... Once you think you've got it all figured out, check your premises, because you're standing on thin ice. That's what Wittgenstein saw, and Sunstein can't. I'll leave it to you to choose, and to determine which politician is more "caring."