Cass Sunstein- The Nudger Behind The Obama Presidency
Bill Collier- One man above all others is the force behind the new style and methods employed by President Obama: he is a man who quite literally co-wrote the book on how to use regulations to transform human nature itself.
This man’s name is Cass Sunstein. He believes, based on the book he co-wrote with Richard Thaler, that there are two kinds of humans. Homo economicus is reflective and evolved and generally makes wise decisions. Homo sapiens is instinctive and not evolved and generally makes foolish decisions. While the two authors use as much scientific jargon as possible in their book “Nudge”, and studiously avoid explicit ideological or political references, it becomes clear to critics that “homo economicus” is a progressive liberal and “homo sapiens” is a traditionalist conservative. It also becomes clear that the “libertarian paternalism” they advocate for is simply a re-branded version of the traditional progressive belief that the state in its regulatory and taxing power is the prime move of human history and progress.
For every problem, the solution is to create a regulation or rule that has the appearance of protecting choice but that creates a “choice architecture” which will “nudge” people to make the “right” (translate- politically progressive) choice. Their chief innovation seems to be twofold- first, they push for a subtle and indirect approach to essentially conceal the true nature or purpose of their “nudging” and, second, they endorse the idea that the use of regulations which do not require Congressional oversight be used to enact changes. They do not explicitly state this, and some would argue this reading goes beyond the book’s intent, but if the author’s actions are proof, as they should be, it would seem this reading is exactly correct.
Cass Sunstein is not simply an academic. He is, for all intents and purposes, President Obama’s “regulatory czar.” His ideas and theories were the very reason the President chose him to be a key player. If Sunstein’s advice is consistent with the theories behind “Nudge”, as we must assume it would be, then it is Sunstein who is the architect of the President’s approach. Their ideological agenda, based on this notion of two species, one evolved and the other not evolved, would not be pursued legislatively but, rather, by processes that are as far removed from the “homo sapiens” as possible, and which are controlled by “homo economicus”, the more evolved human species. The objective is not to subjugate homo sapiens but, through nudging, to elevate him to the level of homo economicus. Nudging seeks to do so without denying homo sapiens free choice but only by nudging him in the right direction.
For instance, you are still free to not get health care. The only “penalty” is that you are taxed. In actuality, everyone is taxed, but those who have health care are given a tax break. That this was (allegedly) concealed during the passage of the Affordable Care Act is also consistent with the general theory. The key thing here is that free choice is actually preserved, albeit with a “nudge” in the form of a new tax that only those who have health coverage are exempted from.
The idea of using regulations, which fall into a grey area, to nudge the populace and thus bring homo sapiens into the homo economicus club has firmly taken root and the President’s innovation here is that he has gone beyond merely nudging through regulations. He has succeeded, and this without very much resistance, in pushing through many policy changes that affect millions of Americans, even against the express wishes of a supine legislature. For those who embrace progressivism and who believe we need to evolve beyond traditional conservatism, these changes are a breath of fresh air.
Using the Sunstein model of “nudging” by regulatory legerdemain, the President has transformed many aspects of US policy, at home and abroad, and has had little need for Congress. He also faces no substantive resistance from the courts. As a matter of fact, with few exceptions, the courts, thus far, have aided in his efforts, not resisted them,
Immigration reform is a de facto reality. Marriage itself is being redefined to a more progressive vision. Punishing but, progressives argue, necessary climate control regulations are being enacted. The internet itself is now a government controlled “utility.” Abroad, the US, under the current President, is conducting agreements not classified as treaties, but which are de facto treaties, without Congressional oversight: indeed the deal with Iran over its nuclear program is being kept from Congress and will not be submitted for their approval.
The nudge behind the Obama Presidency is a man who is a staunch ideological adherent himself, as is evidenced in his writings and his actions. Discerning the President’s actual belief-system from both his books and his actions, for him the progressive and secularist worldview is not merely a competing worldview with others, it is the only “valid” view.
This is a fact of life many progressives embrace: that anyone who disagrees with their version of morality and justice is not evolved and, it is argued by their opponents, needs “managed” or “nudged” into the “right” choices. What is more, the progressive thesis that the state is the prime mover of human history and progress is particularly pronounced under the current President.
This feature of a President who makes policy without the legislature’s full and hearty consent is not entirely new. Critics of President Bush pointed out, or alleged, that his was an “imperial presidency”, particularly in the realm of foreign affairs and military action. They argue that his “neoconservative” penchant for “nation building” in the name of “national security”, and with faint Congressional oversight, went too far. Indeed, even some conservative critics felt that “nation building” and “preemptive wars” smacked of the thesis that states are the prime movers of human history and progress.
The argument is made that now is the time for humankind to turn a corner, and that a benevolent “libertarian paternalism” that nudges people by regulation without totally taking away their free choice is the right path for a planned human evolution. For those who believe in both this basic worldview of what “progress” means and that the state is the prime mover in human history, Sunstein’s model is benevolent and, what is more, efficient. In point of fact, supporters might argue that, aside from conservative ideologues, this “nudging” is having a tremendous effect. Every main agenda item and belief of the modern progressive ideology is featured and celebrated in our society while their opposites are ridiculed, shamed, and even punished, albeit socially more than legally.
It remains to be seen whether this nudging will survive as a practice into the next presidency, or even whether a more conservative President might turn the whole thing on its head and use the precedence set by this President as a weapon against the beliefs of the very people who invented it. It would certainly take a President of great moral character to forego the use of such a powerful tool that nobody, not Congress nor the Courts, has demonstrated either the ability or the will to stand up against.
In the end, the Republic became a Democracy and now the Democracy has become something else. It is hard to put a name on it. Basically, it has become a state where a few un-elected and un-accountable bureaucrats, at the direction of the President, control the actual political action of the country, and where politics (instead of faith, culture, family, free association, the market, or community) controls everything else. This is a condition I call a “politocracy”, a state totally ruled by politics where only a few totally control politics. This, it can be argued, is the ultimate (even if unintended) legacy of Cass Sunstein. On the other hand, if this is the case, it can be argued from the other side, that the advancement in human and societal evolution will be well worth it.
This new American reality also creates even more of a premium on winning the White House, no matter which camp you belong to. The game is now an all-or-nothing battle for the only office in the land that wields any real power, the office that appoints and directs the experts, the regulators, the next generation of Sunsteins.
The questions you must ask are these; Are these ends good ends for human society and do these ends, even if they are good, justify the means by which they are carried out?
Cass Sunstein, unknown to many, is the nudge behind the Obama Presidency. This one man is fundamentally rewriting American society, one regulatory nudge at a time. Welcome to the new America, the America of Nudge-O-nomics.