Cass Sunstein

Transparency and its Discontents

A preliminary draft paper on transparency that Cass Sunstein posted last month inspired Vox’s Matthew Yglesias to editorialize “Against Transparency” this week. Both are ruminations that shouldn’t be dealt with too formally, and in that spirit I’ll say that my personal hierarchy of needs doesn’t entirely overlap with Yglesias’.

In defense of selective government opacity, he says: “We need to let public officials talk to each other — and to their professional contacts outside the government — in ways that are both honest and technologically modern.”

Speak for yourself, buddy! The status quo in government management may need that, but that status quo is no need of mine.

A pithy, persuasive response to Yglesias came from the AP’s Ted Bridis, who pointed out via Twitter the value of recorded telephone calls for unearthing official malfeasance. Recordings reveal, for example, that in 2014 U.S. government officials agreed to restrict more than 37 square miles of airspace surrounding Ferguson, Missouri, in response to local officials’ desire to keep news helicopters from viewing the protests there. Technological change might counsel putting more of public officials’ communications “on the record,” not less.

It’s wise of Sunstein to share his piece in draft—in its “pre-decisional” phase, if you will—because his attempt to categorize information about government decision-making as “inputs” and “outputs” loses its intuitiveness as you go along. Data collected by the government is an output, but when it’s used for deciding how to regulate, it’s an input, etc. These distinctions would be hard to internalize and administer, certainly at the scale of a U.S. federal government, and would collapse when administered by government officials on their own behalf.

‘Libertarian Paranoia’ Strikes Deep?

In case you missed it, in his Bloomberg column last week, law professor and former Obama administration OIRA head Cass Sunstein offered tips on “How to Spot a Paranoid Libertarian.” They’re people who “have a wildly exaggerated sense of risks to liberty, who adopt a presumption of bad faith on the part of government, who have a sense of victimization, who ignore the problem of tradeoffs, and who love slippery-slope arguments.” I probably know some folks who resemble that remark.

In the column and a follow-up blogpost, Sunstein distinguishes between “Paranoid Libertarians” and libertarians in general, who are “speaking on behalf of an important strand in America’s political culture.” And he’s right that virtually all ideologies, libertarianism included, attract some swivel-eyed, conspiratorial adherents who use too much ALLCAPS in their emails. 

What Sunstein doesn’t have is anything resembling a case that “libertarian paranoia” is worth worrying about. In fact, beyond a few anodyne statements like “paranoia isn’t a good foundation for public policy,” he barely tries to make one.  

But, Sunstein suggests, something of what he’s getting at can be found in a 2005 paper on “Libertarian Panics” by his colleague Adrian Vermuele.

I remember that paper very well, having blogged a fairly lengthy critique of it when it came out. It hasn’t improved with age.

The basic argument is plausible enough: Vermuele holds that the same biases and cognitive flaws that can make Americans hysterical about the risk of terror can also make us hysterical about the risks of government abuse. Thus, the salience of past examples of government overreaction to security threats—like WWII Japanese Internment—could lead us to overreact to liberty threats from government in the same way we might overreact to terrorist threats to security.

But when Vermuele gets to specific examples of destructive “libertarian panics,” there’s very little there there. The paper offers two: the American Revolution and the PATRIOT Act. 

We’re Terribly Czarry

My former colleague Dave Weigel makes the excellent point that the supposed explosion of “Czars” under this administration is, in significant part, a function of journalists trying to make the same old “deputy undersecretary” sound sexier.

The Boys Who Cried “Racist”

Some people on the left can’t see any excuse for opposition to collectivism except racism. (Which is, of course, as Ayn Rand said, “the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism.”) Today it’s Paul Krugman:

But they’re probably reacting less to what Mr. Obama is doing, or even to what they’ve heard about what he’s doing, than to who he is.

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