Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Phrase Craze

Cass Sunstein is good at coming up with colorful titles. You've got stuff like "Naked Preferences" or "Nudge" or "Republic.com 2.0." Okay, that last one didn't exactly catch on.  And then there are the phrases he employs to describe certain concepts, such as "libertarian paternalism." (I remember telling him the important thing there is which word is the adjective and which is the noun.)

Even better is when he "unwittingly" coins something, claiming it's not really his.  For instance, there were some people who felt maybe the Commerce Clause shouldn't be read out of the Constitution, and he took some words they'd used in passing and claimed they're part of the "Constitution In Exile" movement, which has stuck since it's both memorable and nasty.

And now he's doing it again. Claiming it comes from Richard Hofstadter by way of Sean Wilentz, he's trying to popularize the latest dance craze, "Paranoid Libertarianism."  He's written before about conspiracy theories, but in this short piece he zeroes in on what seems like more mainstream culprits.

Paranoid libertarians live amongst us.  They may be your neighbors!  How do you spot them?  Not political affiliation, but by how much they question big government when fighting for their rights. 

Here, straight from Sunstein, are the six warning signs:

1.  A wildly exaggerated sense of risks of some government action.

2.  Presumption of bad faith on the part of government officials.

3.  A strong sense of victimization, past, present and future.

4.  An indifference to trade-offs.

5.  Passionate enthusiasm for slippery-slope arguments.

6.  Sweaty palms. (I made this one up.)

The most obvious problem with Sunstein's argument is it's way too vague--it can, barely stretched, include almost anyone who complains about anything the government does.  The only way to judge it will be by feel--i.e., those we most strongly disagree with are the crazy ones.

For instance, to most people, asking someone to show an ID at a polling place is common sense.  It would seem you should prove who you are before you vote, and such rules are widespread in democracies around the world. But to the crowd Cass hangs out with, this is an unconstitutional outrage (though the Supreme Court has okayed it), and they have no trouble claiming bad faith on those who want such laws.  So which is that Cass, paranoid libertarianism or sensible caution?

In the other direction, he claims gun rights supporters oppose almost any gun control measures, fearing they're part of a wider movement to ban guns.  I personally have no dog in this fight, and maybe the gun nuts are too fearful.  Or maybe they've heard too many anti-gun people who do want to ban guns. And perhaps they realize that there are thousands of gun laws out there and they only seem to have whetted the appetite for more. And maybe they realize all these gun laws have little effect on overall crime and so it only makes sense that people who blame guns for our problems will by necessity go further and further.

The wider point is mainstream movements on both the right and left often speak out against government action.  What else are they to do?  Yes, some go too far.  But I don't trust any single person, much less a government agency, to decide who's gone too far, at least not when things are still in the realm of politics.

I might add that anyone who support the Bill of Rights supports slippery-slope arguments.  Otherwise, why not just trust the good faith of the democratically elected government to do the right thing?

But Cass isn't totally down on these people.  Here's how he ends his piece:

Societies can benefit a lot from paranoid libertarians. Even if their apocalyptic warnings are wildly overstated, they might draw attention to genuine risks, or at least improve public discussion. But as a general rule, paranoia isn’t a good foundation for public policy, even if it operates in freedom’s name.

They may be crazy, but even crazy people can serve some purpose.  So don't feel bad about someone calling you paranoid. It's all part of a useful public conversation.

(By the way, how come people who demand more government to solve our problems aren't paranoid?)

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Paranoia is a condition-like being fearful or excited or happy- and I have often thought should be a more neutral word. I.e. sometimes they are out to get you (and some times for quite good reasons too but that's another issue).

4:59 AM, February 05, 2014  
Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

So, LAGuy, what is the emoticon for "you are the master"?

I'm thinking it involves Alice Cooper somehow.

2:51 PM, February 05, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. A wildly exaggerated sense of risks of some private action.

2. Presumption of bad faith on the part of private actors and anyone who disagrees with you.

3. A strong sense of victimization, past, present and future.

4. An indifference to trade-offs.

5. Casual disregard for obvious consequences.

6. An erection lasting more than three minutes. (I borrowed this one from a prescription bottle and modified it.)

3:09 PM, February 05, 2014  

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