On Jeremy Waldron’s tepid critique of Cass Sunstein’s ‘Asymmetric Paternalism’, a comment by American Writer

In reading Mr. Waldron’s review of two of Mr. Sunstein’s books, in the October 9,2014 edition of The New Your Review of Books:

Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas

by Cass R. Sunstein
Simon and Schuster, 267 pp., $26.00
The reader is not asked to suspend judgment about the paternalism that both these books offer, but to accept Mr. Waldron’s tepid critique as somehow laudable, as it is framed in the rhetoric of the current iteration of political orthodoxy. Mr. Waldron fails to confront the question of what degree of ‘paternalism’, which is a carefully laundered word for authoritarianism, is acceptable? The ‘condescension that worried Bernard Williams’ acts as a rhetorical equivocation, that lets both Waldron and Sunstein chatter away, well within the bounds of respectable academic discourse. While avoiding the real question of authoritarianism, and the stark implications for an attempt at maintaining what remains of  human freedom, within an administrative state, that seems to be in a state of perpetual economic lethargy, not to speak of endless war, no matter how carefully it be framed.

For Sunstein’s idea is that we who know better should manipulate the choice architecture so that those who are less likely to perceive what is good for them can be induced to choose the options that we have decided are in their best interest. Thaler and Sunstein talk sometimes of “asymmetric paternalism.” The guiding principle of this approach

is that we should design policies that help the least sophisticated people in society while imposing the smallest possible costs on the most sophisticated.

This is a benign impulse on their part, but it is not a million miles away from the condescension that worried Bernard Williams.


American Writer

About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.' https://www.lrb.co.uk/v15/n20/perry-anderson/diary
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