Cass Sunstein, former regulatory czar for President Barack Obama, is the subject of a glowing profile in this month’s Harvard magazine. Entitled “The Legal Olympian,” the article gushes over Sunstein’s extensive scholarly output, notes his many talents (including squash), and touches briefly on his philosophy of “libertarian paternalism,” according to which the state may help individuals make better choices (for themselves and for society) by giving them a “nudge” without infringing their freedom.
More than halfway through the article, however, readers are told that Sunstein will not comment on the way he applied that philosophy in the White House. In fact, Sunstein “has a policy against answering any questions about his time in government.” It’s an odd policy, to say the least, for someone who has written an entire book on conspiracy theories. Sunstein also purports to champion James Madison’s ideas about government, but a secretive government does not exactly lend itself to accountability.
The Harvard article notes that Sunstein’s regulatory office slowed down its review of new government rules in the run-up to the 2012 presidential elections, hoping–its critics allege–to avoid potential political damage to Obama’s re-election hopes. That, and Sunstein’s refusal to explain himself, together raise suspicions that his “libertarian paternalism” is more about the noun than the adjective–just statism in a new guise, exactly what his most vociferous (and occasionally over-the-top) critics have contended.
What looks like just a little “nudge” to Sunstein turns out to be exactly what Alexis de Tocqueville warned about in Democracy in America: a despotism whose power is “absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild”; that “covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform,” that enslaves people “in the minor details of life.” Such despotism must remain unseen and opaque to be most effective. That is precisely why Sunstein’s silence is so telling–and so worrying.
Senior Editor-at-Large Joel B. Pollak edits Breitbart California and is the author of the new ebook, Wacko Birds: The Fall (and Rise) of the Tea Party, available for Amazon Kindle.
Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelpollak