Commentary Magazine

The Bureaucrat-Driven Life

Simpler: The Future of Government
By Cass Sunstein
Simon & Schuster, 272 pages

According to enthusiasts of the ascendant social science/life-coaching strategy/quasi-cult known as “behavioral economics,” government officials can use extensive analysis of human behavior, gentle paternalistic “nudges,” and carefully crafted “choice architecture” to change the way people think and behave. In theory, this will ultimately allow everyone to lose weight, save money, give up smoking, quit texting while driving, and, in general, stop being such a jerk.

Sounds great, no? It does to Harvard’s Cass Sunstein, an advocate of what he calls “libertarian paternalism” and the author of a new book describing his recent stint as the Obama administration’s “regulatory czar”—or, to put it more officially, as the head of the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. (Sunstein, a consistently self-deprecating master of the humblebrag, writes that the “czar” nickname is a “wild overstatement.” He prefers to describe his former job as overseeing “the cockpit of the regulatory state.” Well, okay.)

Sunstein’s book describing the various rules and regulations enacted during Obama’s first term—including those charming trifles popularly known as ObamaCare and Dodd-Frank—is called Simpler: The Future of Government. Yes, it’s really called that. Simpler. “Some people, especially those who are not enthusiastic about President Obama, are likely to find my emphasis on simplification a bit puzzling, perhaps even surreal,” Sunstein writes in the first chapter. “They might ask, ‘Hasn’t the Obama administration opted for more regulation, and more complexity, at every turn? Isn’t the Affordable Care Act intolerably complicated, and indeed a bit of a mess?’”

Good questions—and Sunstein claims to broach them. “To provide an answer,” he continues (and here, one pictures him typing feverishly, hunched over his computer, coffee going cold), “we need to make a distinction. Some people want a radical and wholesale reduction in the functions of the federal government.” Hmmm. Go on. “They would like to return the United States to something like, or at least closer to, what it was before Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Most Americans vigorously disagree with them (as do I). But let me be very clear: This book is not meant to address the question whether we should return to the days of Herbert Hoover, or dramatically reduce government’s functions, in order to promote simplification or for any other reason.”

Ah, well, that clears it all up. And with that “distinction,” the promise of Sunstein’s “answer” to the paradox of Obamaism being a way to make government “simpler” simply vanishes. For then, not unlike beautiful, careless Daisy Buchanan flooring the gas in Gatsby’s ill-fated yellow roadster, Sunstein tears away, tires squealing, plowing through a grand total of 272 reason-defying pages without a single look back. Readers, as his passengers, may feel concerned by the countless large, disquieting thumps beneath the roaring wheels (Was that the complete and rather slapdash restructuring of one-sixth of the American economy?), but Sunstein drives undaunted, refusing to acknowledge, among other things, the $6.2 trillion net of regulation he helped thrust upon the nation.

Is Sunstein in some sort of denial? Does he want to remind us, Daisy Buchanan–style, that Obama was really the one driving the car when it came to the big, messy, not-so-simple regulations of the past few years? Or does he just think we’re all a bunch of Big Gulp–slurping dolts who regularly forget to brush our teeth at night and need to be guided by our betters? A close reading of Simpler suggests that the answer to all three questions is yes—and that the government, dear friends, can solve all our problems.

Sunstein’s grand vision features knowledgeable, unbiased public officials who diligently craft effective “choice architecture” for citizens, setting up certain environments (grocery stores, in a purely hypothetical example, could be forced to place cigarettes on 50-foot-tall shelves) that favor certain decisions (in this case, not smoking). The beauty of this approach, Sunstein argues, is that we can promote certain decisions while “maintaining freedom of choice.”

If this sounds slightly fishy to you, just wait. Despite approving a health-care bill that now boasts more than 20,000 regulations, forming a stack of paper over seven feet high, Sunstein repeatedly insists that he has actually reduced red tape. In his one near-acknowledgement that ObamaCare might be a little bit of a catastrophe, Sunstein quickly morphs into yet another American literary lady, Scarlett O’Hara: “The Affordable Care Act is helping many millions of people, but it is not exactly short and sweet. As they say, Rome was not built in a day, and the same is true of Government EZ.” Well, fiddle-dee-dee, let’s think about that tomorrow, shall we?

Much like the modern behemoth that is the United States federal government, Sunstein is the Master of the Little Things, while simultaneously serving as the Chief Ignorer of the Huge, Pressing, and Obvious. As the nation chugs along the path to bankruptcy and numerous foreign-policy crises roil the planet, he is busy worrying about the most effective place to hide the office chocolate bowl. (The answer, by the way, just to save you the trouble of reading Simpler, is to HIDE IT OUT OF SIGHT.) In fact, if an alien were to come down to Earth, and the only book available in the interplanetary customs line were Simpler, and if he didn’t decide right then and there that he should put us all out of our misery, he would leave this celestial sphere convinced that this world’s more pressing problems were distracted driving, lack of rearview cameras, cigarettes, and fat people.

The most troubling aspect of Simpler, however, is not that Cass Sunstein thinks that people tend to be hapless yokels. It’s not even that he takes bureaucratic hubris to a mind-boggling new level. It’s that he explicitly acknowledges the very serious problems that can accompany government paternalism—that public officials can be biased, corrupt, or devoid of proper knowledge; that people need freedom and must learn from their mistakes; that people might actually like and cherish taking risks; that the free market can solve problems and create innovation far better than government officials can; that paternalism can make people’s lives worse, not better—and he still doesn’t mind. He is a man on a mission. He and his acolytes are here, whether you like it or not, to help.

In his recent book, To Save Everything, Click Here, Evgeny Morozov bemoans the mindset of “solutionism,” which centers on the idea that humans, armed with optimism and high-level computing, can fix pretty much everything. In solutionist circles in Silicon Valley and elsewhere in the high-tech sector, the idea that human nature is fundamentally flawed never seems to rear its ugly head; nor does the unfortunate truth that unintended consequences are often as bad or worse than the problem that was “fixed.”

Simpler takes this fix-it mentality and raises it up a notch, beyond the technological and into the very social fabric of the nation. It seems a cliché to bring up Brave New World at this point, but when you’re reading the nonfiction version of it, what can you do? “When some people get obese and others do not,” Sunstein writes, “it is often because the latter are benefitting from good choice architecture and the former are not.” But is that really why? Or is it because they have emotional problems that they medicate with food? Or is it because they have bad habits that are tough to break? Or, perhaps—and batten down the hatches, everyone—it’s because they just don’t care?

“The only claim I am making here,” Sunstein writes in one of many “he-doth-protest-too-much” sections of the book, “is that in identifiable contexts, human welfare can be promoted by approaches that count as paternalistic. If we are concerned with people’s welfare, we will not always rule those approaches out of bounds.” In Sunstein’s world, a full life is a “happy” life, void of troublesome mistakes and messy bad decisions. It’s a perfect life on paper. It’s also a life that is estimated, according to rather depressing government regulations, to be worth somewhere between $8 or 9 million dollars.

In some ways, I suppose, this utilitarian view of life—that of the ultimate fixable project—could be seen as comforting. But, of course, that’s not really what life is about. Sunstein describes a famous social-science experiment in which subjects watch a video featuring people tossing a ball. Their assignment: Count the number of passes. Almost without fail, the subjects get so absorbed in counting that they completely miss the man in a gorilla costume who waltzes in, pounds his chest, and leaves.

The psychologist Daniel Kahneman summarizes the experiment as follows: “The gorilla study illustrates two important facts about our minds: We can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.” Indeed. It’s also a perfect analogy for obsessive solutionism of all kinds, heavy on the details and short on the big stuff of life: Love. Freedom. Dignity. Empathy. Service. Kindness. Spiritual growth. These are the things you can’t quantify, chart, or “nudge” (the title of a previous Sunstein book). And these are the things that matter.

About the Author

Heather Wilhelm, a new contributor, is based in Chicago and writes regularly for RealClearPolitics.

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