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Nudging Us To Serfdom

One may say of that human poltergeist, Cass Sunstein, even though he left the Obama administration for the elitist fields of academic Elysium, “He’s back….”

On January 30th, Maxim Lott of Fox News reported:

The federal government is hiring what it calls a “Behavioral Insights Team” that will look for ways to subtly influence people’s behavior, according to a document describing the program obtained by FoxNews.com. Critics warn there could be unintended consequences to such policies, while supporters say the team could make government and society more efficient.

Lost on all these advisors and bureaucrats is the truism that the most “efficient” society is a free one – not what they have in mind at all. An “efficient” society, if the notion has any meaning at all, is one in which the element of initiated force is morally absent from human relationships. Initiated force, whether physical or in terms of fraud or indirect force, in an “efficient” society would be treated as a crime.

“Unintended consequences” can only mean the expansion of government power over everyone’s lives, and in every instance of expansion it has caused deleterious consequences in society itself. Most of these consequences are either intended, viewed as “good,” or remain unacknowledged by our de facto wardens. For example, the 16th Amendment (and its Civil War and Reconstruction Era predecessors), sanctioning a tax on private incomes, has grown from one that was a mere single digit percentage of private income of all kinds, to over 80% of it if one doesn’t have a pricy tax attorney or CPA to juggle the books and take advantage of a mare’s nest of loopholes,  exemptions, and special categories. The federal income tax code has swollen from 400 pages to nearly 74,000 pages – and counting.

The Environmental Protection Agency grew from the hippie ecology movement of the early 1960’s to a federal behemoth with fiat powers to seize, destroy, and regulate all kinds of property, employing some 17,000 persons and uncounted independent contractors. It was a Republican, Richard Nixon, who signed it into existence in 1970.  Picture him wearing a Zodiac headband, a scraggly beard, and a tie-dyed T-shirt with a “Peace” button pinned to it.

Equally true is the notion that an “efficient” government should feared by all not in the government. An efficient government, shorn of all its inherent, bureaucratic ineptness and natural lassitude, would have the lethal speed and instinct of an annoyed rattlesnake or a king cobra.

Inefficient governments give Americans room to breathe and act.

If it weren’t for that breathing space, nothing would be produced or accomplished. In a mixed economy such as ours, it is the relatively unregulated and unpoliced portion of it which, by default, sustains the rest. Command economies are stagnant, and are sustained only by the relatively freer but mixed economies beyond a nation’s borders. Mixed economies are doomed to fail, as well, obeying the law of diminishing returns and ending up as command economies, and ultimately collapse. Mixed economies also ultimately become authoritarian régimes or dictatorships. This is a phenomenon we are witnessing now under the aegis of Barack Obama.

The federal government’s “nudge” program proposal continues:

“Behavioral sciences can be used to help design public policies that work better, cost less, and help people to achieve their goals,” reads the government document describing the program, which goes on to call for applicants to apply for positions on the team.

The only legitimate “public policy” of government should be the banning of initiated force from men’s relationships. All other “designed” policies must employ force. By “cost” is meant taxpayer-funded, and we all know that cost is the last thing on policy designers’ minds. Once a statist agency or bureaucratic budget is implemented, all it can do is grow and work at a deficit, siphoning off money and energy that would otherwise be devoted to producing tangible values.

Governments, after all, produce nothing, not even the paper on which all the forms, studies, and regulatory diktats are printed. Search a bureaucrat’s or government employee’s desk for something produced by the government. You will find nothing, not a single paper clip or pencil or blotter or computer. All these things and more are produced privately and bought by the government.

Whose goals would be achieved, and what goals would they be? Are they the goals of the multitudes of Nurse Ratcheds in government? If the goals are personal or private, what business has the government to help people achieve them?

The document was emailed by Maya Shankar, a White House senior adviser on social and behavioral sciences, to a university professor with the request that it be distributed to people interested in joining the team. The idea is that the team would “experiment” with various techniques, with the goal of tweaking behavior so people do everything from saving more for retirement to saving more in energy costs….

Such policies – which encourage behavior subtly rather than outright require it – have come to be known as “nudges,” after an influential 2008 book titled “Nudge” [Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (with Richard H. Thaler, 2008)] by former Obama regulatory czar Cass Sunstein and Chicago Booth School of Business professor Richard Thaler popularized the term.

The term “nudge” has already been associated with the new program, as one professor who received Shanker’s email forwarded it to others with the note: “Anyone interested in working for the White House in a ‘nudge squad? The UK has one and it’s been extraordinarily successful.”

This is a prescription for a society run by an army of Nurse Ratcheds. Maya Shankar is a wannabe Nurse Ratched. She wants to make sure that you take your calming medication so you can be more easily “nudged” in a behavioral direction deemed worthy by other clinical psychologists and authorities in the pay of the government. If you don’t take it voluntarily, she can recommend less pleasant ways of making you take it. By force. After all, what’s the point of designating a preferred behavior if no one prefers it? People can be either fooled into conforming to it (it’s called ” subtlety”), or forced to. Those are the only options a statist government can and will offer.

Maya Shanker, standing in for Cass Sunstein, and a mere senior advisor to the deputy director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House, is seeking ways for the government to “encourage” people to conform to preferred behavior. After all, she must exploit her Yale, Oxford, and Stanford University degrees.

Whose “preferred behavior” has she in mind? Whatever another Nurse Ratched pulling down a federal paycheck wishes that behavior to be, or a behavior approved of or frowned upon by a consensus of anonymous ciphers. In short, she is looking for volunteers who will help nudge people into adopting or abandoning those behaviors. But it looks more like a program angling for a purpose and Shankar angling for a super-duper nurse’s station.

Sunstein, now a professor at Harvard Law School, would approve of Shankar’s application and expansion of his “people management” ideas, even though she is a Yale alumnus. In the past I have written about Sunstein’s hostility to freedom and especially to freedom of speech (“Your Mild-Mannered Speech Therapist” and “Cass Sunstein: ‘Czar in Wolf’s Clothing”). He has exhausted my allotment of words devoted to identifying him as a soft core tyrant and will say no more about him here.

I have a project for Nurse Shankar. How would she analyze the epistemology and metaphysics of someone who was burdened with demonstrable behavioral problems, such as Adolf Hitler? After all, Shankar did research into the topological theories of perception and object representation and is alleged to have made several startling discoveries. What conclusions would she reach, and what would she recommend? How would she treat his obsession with Mickey Mouse?

Did he enjoy the Disney humor, or was he fascinated by Mickey the Magician’s ability to wave a wand and make every wish of his come true? Such as a Jew-free world, endless lebensraum in Russia, and a healthy, strong, and racially pure Aryan race that out-bred other ethnic groups, and especially non-Aryans of every racial variety?

How would she rate his perception and object representation? Were they reality grounded, or wholly a projection of his fantasies and wish fulfillment? And, above all, given her extensive qualifications, she ought to be able to answer this crucial question: Did Hitler identify with Mickey Mouse? Was he amused or depressed when Mickey failed, and looked more like Bullwinkle pulling everything but a rabbit out of his hat? Or would he persevere in his own program to “nudge” his nation into Pax Germania?

And if he did, would she recommend a program of subtle “nudges” so that he wouldn’t become such a bad person (as defined by the government), or dispense with the nudges and just let him be?

I’m guessing she would recommend letting him be. That’s because she apparently shares a similar ambition: To institutionalize and legitimize force with the fiat power of totalitarianism. If she did not share such an ambition, she would not have a desk in the White House. And especially not in Obama’s White House.