Sunstein, director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, will
not like this column. He may be offended by it. Feel insulted. Cry “not
fair!” He may recommend that I be taxed, or financially penalized somehow
for expressing unapproved speech, or even incarcerated for having said such
awful things about him. He endorses these ideas. Works assiduously for them.
Has written extensively on how unbridled free speech imperils society and social
stability, and so ought to be checked and even licensed.
he hasn’t yet. In September 2009 I penned, “Cass Sunstein: ‘Czar’ in Wolf’s Clothing,” in which I excoriated him
for sanctioning censorship and the manipulation of “public opinion”
on the occasion of regiment of government arts-grantees being turned loose on
the public by the National Endowment for the Arts. (I have written numerous
articles on the perils facing the First Amendment and freedom of speech,
including “‘High Noon’ for the First Amendment” in September 2009,
which indict Sunstein, as well, including several articles for the Journal of Information Ethics and The Encyclopedia of Library and Information
and a mountain of articles and papers. A man who has written so much may have a
faulty memory and have difficulty remembering what he’s written. On April 30th,
for example, during a lecture at New York University Law School, an attendee asked him if he still endorsed an idea he proposed in a paper he wrote in 2008
while still fully employed at the University of Chicago Law School,
“Conspiracy Theories” (before
joining the faculty of Harvard Law School; Working Papers Nos. 08-3, 199, and
lecture, We Are Change founder Luke Rudkowski confronted Sunstein
concerning his avocation of a “provocateur” style program to silence
what have become the government’s most vociferous and influential critics.
himself as “Bill de Berg from Brooklyn college,” before directly
asking Sunstein to explain his comments.
the most telling one about you is the 2008 one called ‘Conspiracy Theories,’
where you openly advocated government agents infiltrating activist groups for
9/11 truth, and also to stifle dissent online,” Rudkowski stated.
after family members and responders who have questions about 9/11?” he
remember some and not others,” Sunstein replied, denying that he has a
firm recollection of the paper.
said in that article, my role in government is to oversee federal rulemaking in
a way that is wholly disconnected from the vast majority of my academic
writing, including that,” Sunstein added.
may be the next Supreme Court Justice if Obama appoints you, and you did write
those things,” Rudkowski replied.
written but I’m not exactly sure. I focus on what my boss wants me to do,”
Sunstein said, intimating that he was just following orders.
his comments about banning opinions that differ from those of the government,
Sunstein again claimed he did not remember the article he had written and his
personnel intervened to prevent Rudkowski pressing him on the matter.
think Sunstein got the joke. Someone probably filled him in after the lecture. Rudkowski
used as a pseudonym a play on The Bilderberg Conference – or Group or Club – an
annual meeting in the Netherlands of influential Western politicians,
businessmen, industrialists, and media heads. It is the subject of a conspiracy
theory for world domination or world government, as have been the annual
Pugwash Conference in Nova Scotia, the two-week Bohemian Club encampment in
rural California, and the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. There
are also a number of private organizations the subject of conspiracy theories,
such as the Masons and Yale University’s Skull and Crossbones, among others. (I
employ some of these conspiracy theories in two of my novels, The Daedâlus Conspiracy and Presence of Mind, and not to the credit
of the theories or their adherents.)
read all thirty pages of this paper. It is a ponderous, sociology-jargon
riddled discourse that treats men as interchangeable, volitionless ciphers
influenced by peer pressure, rumors, speculation and hearsay, as mere atoms of
a social whole, the pawns and playthings of mysterious but unaccountable powers
beyond their ken. Sunstein’s paper is half Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World, forty percent B.F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity, and ten percent Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. His career
position has been that the government has a natural adversarial interest and power
to monitor, “manage,” or otherwise counter men’s thinking and speech
it deems dangerous or potentially dangerous or disruptive.
Sunstein could not remember having written this paper tests one’s credulity. In it he expresses his central, fundamental
political premises, one of which stands out: that the government has an
obligation to oversee or police speech for the “greater good.”
Sunstein did not answer Rudkowski’s question; he deftly pleaded advanced but
selective Alzheimer’s in the finest tradition of political stand-up evasion.
is a sole thesis in “Conspiracy Theories”: that the government should
act to gag or confuse conspiracy theorists, which would include anyone with a
plausible, credible theory of government malfeasance or inappropriate behavior,
and not just wild-eyed, crackpot theories. Here are some choice statements from
Sunstein’s paper. He begins by citing all the conspiracy theories surrounding
the 9/11 attacks, that they were either the work of the federal government or
committed by terrorists with foreknowledge of them by the government. But then
he diminishes his seriousness about the subject by deeming Santa Claus, the
Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy as “conspiracy theories.” Weeding
through and enduring all the mushy verbiage about how and why conspiracy
theories arise and gain currency, one is persuaded of one single thing about
Sunstein’s target: the safety and preservation of government power. Conspiracy
theories jeopardize government, not the public. Conspiracy theories must be
either spoken or recorded, and that action, regardless of the merits or lack of
them of any given theory, comes under the protection of the First Amendment.
Sunstein’s worldview, the First Amendment is no guarantor of “democratic
deliberation.” It must be either rewritten, or complemented with
legislation that will identify and regulate what the government deems as true
and worthy of deliberation.
of course, means censorship. Here are a sampling of excerpts from Sunstein’s
half-forgotten paper. The abstract sums up Sunstein’s means and ends.
risks of violence, and the existence of such theories raises significant challenges
for policy and law. The first challenge is to understand the mechanisms by which
conspiracy theories prosper; the second challenge is to understand how such theories
might be undermined. Such theories typically spread as a result of identifiable
cognitive blunders, operating in conjunction with informational and
reputational influences. A distinctive feature of conspiracy theories is their self-sealing
quality. Conspiracy theorists are not likely to be persuaded by an attempt
to dispel their theories; they may even characterize that very attempt as further proof of the
conspiracy. Because those who hold conspiracy theories typically suffer from a “crippled
epistemology,” in accordance with which it is rational to hold such
theories, the best response consists in cognitive infiltration of
extremist groups. Various policy dilemmas, such as the question whether it is
better for government to rebut conspiracy theories or to ignore them, are explored
in this light.
those italicized terms. They will come in handy later.
about conspiracy theories – whether true or false, harmful or benign – is whether
they are justified. Justification and truth are different issues; a true belief may be
unjustified, and a justified belief may be untrue. (p. 6)
yet? You may be justified in thinking that your car is powered by gas and
internal combustion and electricity, but it may not be true. Sunstein will
argued that conspiracy theories overlook the pervasive unintended consequences
of political and social action; they assume that all consequences must have
been intended by someone The basic idea
is that many social effects, including large movements in the economy, occur as
a result of the acts and omissions of many people, none of whom intended to
cause those effects. The Great Depression of the 1930s was not self-consciously
engineered by anyone; increases in the unemployment or inflation rate, or in
the price of gasoline, may reflect market pressures rather than intentional
action. Nonetheless, there is a pervasive human tendency to think that effects are
caused by intentional action, especially by those who stand to benefit (the cui bono? maxim), and for this reason
conspiracy theories have considerable but unwarranted appeal. [p. 7]
yes. Because natural phenomena are not the subject of the paper, all human
action is attributable to intended consequences. Whether or not those
consequences are intended to subjugate or mislead, or allow the actors to
profit from them, is open to interpretation without evidence, but with
evidence, those intentions can be proven. It is here, for the first of many
times throughout his paper, that Sunstein implies that government policies that
cause depressions, inflation, and gas prices, are excluded from any serious
discussion of conspiracies. We can, however, determine motives from the
consequences of those policies, such as the refusal of a government to allow
oil exploration and drilling, or refusing to allow pipelines to be built,
actions which result in higher gas prices. This is not rocket science or
continues to cite Popper:
important feature of some conspiracy theories. Their appeal lies in the
attribution of otherwise inexplicable events to intentional action, and to an unwillingness
to accept the possibility that significant adverse consequences may be a product
of invisible hand mechanisms (such as market forces or evolutionary pressures) or
of simple chance, rather than of anyone’s plans. A conspiracy theory posits
that a social outcome evidences an underlying intentional order, overlooking
the possibility that the outcome arises from either spontaneous order or random forces. [Italics mine, p. 7]
forces? Not a philosophy of altruism, not a system of collectivism? Ideas and
ideologies play no role in Sunstein’s explication of conspiracy theories.
People just get all this foolishness in their heads.
informationally and socially isolated groups tend to display a kind of paranoid
cognition and become increasingly distrustful or suspicious of the motives of others
or of the larger society, falling into a “sinister attribution error.”
This error occurs when people feel that they are under pervasive scrutiny, and
hence they attribute personalistic motives to outsiders and overestimate the
amount of attention they receive. Benign actions that happen to disadvantage
the group are taken as purposeful plots, intended to harm. [p. 15]
observation admirably describes how most of the American public is alienated
from the Mainstream Media, which largely endorses and shills for harmful and
intrusive government policies. There are a few independent news outlets that
hove to true journalistic reporting. Fox News is one of them, so it is no
wonder that some statists are demanding that the FCC revoke its broadcasting license. After all, reporting news of government corruption, policy failures,
hypocrisy, and ignorance can be deemed a harmful “conspiracy theory,”
and we would all be better off without Fox News.
do about conspiracy theories? Among the things it can do, what should it do? We
can readily imagine a series of possible responses. (1) Government might ban
conspiracy theorizing. (2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial
or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories. (3) Government might
itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories.
(4) Government might formally hire credible private parties to engage in counterspeech.
(5) Government might engage in informal communication with such parties,
encouraging them to help. Each instrument has a distinctive set of potential effects,
or costs and benefits, and each will have a place under imaginable conditions. However,
our main policy idea is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy
theories, which involves a mix of (3), (4) and (5). [Italics mine, p. 15]
is comfortable with all these options, as he explains further on, although
there are “cost and benefit” considerations to take into account.
But, he would much prefer to play with the minds of Americans with
“cognitive infiltration.” Otherwise known as lies or half-lies.
a well-motivated government that aims to eliminate conspiracy theories, or draw
their poison, if and only if social welfare is improved by doing so. (We do not
offer a particular account of social welfare, taking the term instead as a
placeholder for the right account.)
it is obvious which “social welfare” account Sunstein prefers –
precisely the kind that exists now, a mixed economy which has grown less and
less mixed under the current administration. Charging that administration with
imposing a command, socialist economy on the country – after nearly four years
of observation, evidence, and deduction –, would, in his parlance, be a
“conspiracy theory” and come under the aegis of government action. Sunstein
concludes his vaguely-recalled paper with:
theories create serious risks. They do not merely undermine democratic debate;
in extreme cases, they create or fuel violence. If government can dispel such
theories, it should do so. One problem is that its efforts might be counterproductive,
because efforts to rebut conspiracy theories also legitimate them. We have
suggested, however, that government can minimize this effect by rebutting more rather
than fewer theories, by enlisting independent groups to supply rebuttals, and
by cognitive infiltration designed to break up the crippled epistemology of
conspiracy minded groups and informationally isolated social networks.
for more government power speaks for itself. But the public is no longer
“informationally” isolated, or even starved. It has the Internet at
its disposal to conduct its own judgment of what is true and what is false. Aside
from the traditional repository of information, called books and libraries. And
Sunstein has his beady eyes on the Internet to regulate it for the sake of
ridding society of all those foolish ideas and theories, to better ensure that
the public has the “truth.”
fundamentally, is a “conspiracy theory”? It is the contents of an
individual’s mind. And it is man’s mind that Sunstein wishes the government to
of 2010 The New York Times ran an adulatory, almost fawning appraisal of
Sunstein and his policies, “Cass Sunstein Wants to Nudge Us.”
a popular book that he wrote with the influential behavioral economist Richard
Thaler, Sunstein elaborated a philosophy called “libertarian paternalism.”
Conservative economists have long stressed that because people are rational,
the best way for government to serve the public is to guarantee a fair market
and to otherwise get out of the way. But in the real world, Sunstein and Thaler
argue, people are subject to all sorts of biases and quirks. They also argue
that this human quality, which some would call irrationality, can be predicted
and — this is the controversial part — that if the social environment can be
changed, people might be nudged into more rational behavior.
behavior” meaning obeying orders, and deferring to authority, especially government
authority. Of course, Sunstein, Thaler and Benjamin Wallace Wells, author of
the Times article, are also subject to all sorts of biases and quirks. The difference
is that Sunstein in his present position wants to be able to enforce his biases
and quirks. One shouldn’t call that a “conspiracy,” else one might
find oneself burdened with a special “irresponsible speech” tax, or
taken to court, or sent to a reeducation camp to have one’s “crippled
epistemology” cured by hard labor and epistemology-altering drugs.
confirms the existence of that paper Sunstein had difficulty remembering.
his academic career, a penchant for publishing trial balloons — they were a
necessary part of his inquiry, a perpetual what if? Now, with their author a
government official, some of these conjectures seem more worrisome. Sunstein
has, for example, written often about the corrosive effects of rumors and
falsehoods on democratic discourse (it is the subject of one of the two books
that were published while he was waiting to be confirmed last year), and in a
2008 paper, he proposed that government agents “cognitively infiltrate”
chat rooms and message boards to try to debunk conspiracy theories before they
spread. The paper was narrowly concerned with terrorism, but to some, these
were dark musings.
or not, Wells approves. He needn’t worry about having his thoughts
“infiltrated.” They’ve already been co-opted.
take a look at what would be Cass Sunstein’s interpretation of the American
were many American colonials who perceived a conspiracy by the Crown to enslave
or indenture them to the Crown’s benefit, or at least to the benefit of a
handful of dissembling plotters.
course, from the Crown’s perspective – and the Crown knew what was best for
everyone, that was part of its job, its authority was the Book of All Knowledge
– these dissatisfied and contentious colonials, most notably Patrick Henry,
Thomas Jefferson, the Adams cousins, George Mason, and many others, all
well-read in the political theories of John Locke and other antiquarian
philosophers and theorists, and who were otherwise quite rational
gentlemen, nonetheless were burdened
with a “crippled epistemology” which inevitably skewed their
perception of things. This epistemology permitted them to see dark designs where
there were none in every action taken by the Crown, demonstrably taken for
public order and the greater good.
unfortunate gentlemen, who represented the “conspiracy
entrepreneurs,” rejected any and all explanations of Crown actions, and
brooked no dissent within their own core membership. They tenaciously held onto
their suspicion that the Crown was a semi-potent entity controlled by a small,
secret clique in the deepest but most respectable recesses of the British
establishment, who meant the colonies no good and sought to profit from the
consequential misery of their distant charges.
their dealings and correspondence between themselves, the colonials mutually
reinforced their collective certainty of a conspiracy emanating from the most impenetrable
bowels of the British government, and, in resisting all reasonable explanations,
experienced an overwhelming and continuous “cascading” of consensual
agreement concerning the means and ends of the Crown, even though some of them
differed on specific points. All attempts by the Crown to “cognitively infiltrate”
political discussions and gatherings and to sow seeds of discord, disinformation
and misdirection, failed. The mechanisms of the conspiracy theorists were proof
against tampering. The self-sealing “psychosis” of conspiracy proved
too strong, and the Crown, otherwise unprepared to deal with such recalcitrant
opposition to its benevolent policies, wondered if the best course of action
might have been to simply ignore all colonials obsessed with their conspiracy
theory. But, it was too late.
conspiracy theorists finally took action. Their paranoia resulted in
Jefferson’s enumeration of libelous and slanderous (and, in other
circumstances, actionable, they learned nothing from the John Wilkes affair) charges
against the sovereign and his alleged lackeys in the Declaration of Independence. This curious document seemed to sanction any and all resistance
to Crown authority, and served to deviously “objectify” their
unfounded and delusional grievances against the Crown for the consideration of
a “candid world” (neglecting the fact that most of it couldn’t read
anyway; the Declaration merely “preached to the choir”).
hysterical climax was preceded only a year before by an act of violence (predicted
by a number of members of the Commons, notably Isaac Barré) committed by the lower ranks of subscribers
to the conspiracy theory when they opposed with firearms a benign expedition by
lawful authorities to find and destroy stockpiles of gunpowder and arms, which were
intended by the conspiracy theorists to be used against the Crown without
regard to law and order should it not belay its purported designs on the
colonials. There was a tragic loss of life among those acting only to ensure
the public’s safety against “extremist” violence.
all know the consequences of this unfortunate episode of cognitive dissonance.
Sunstein, your wannabe “speech therapist.”