Sunstein has strong liberal instincts—his work is animated by his concern for the rights and well-being of poor and vulnerable people and oppressed groups—and he believes that government is there to help. But what makes his work so interesting and influential is that he has a hard-headed appreciation of the problems of government, and has explored, with extraordinary imagination, approaches to regulation that harness the power of government without unduly infringing on people’s freedom or in other ways producing bad outcomes.
The approach that has received the most attention recently is Sunstein’s argument (with Dick Thaler) in support of what they call “libertarian paternalism,” government policies that help prevent errors that people predictably make because of cognitive biases (Sunstein is a prominent critic of the rational actor model used by economists) without interfering with the choices of sophisticated people who know their interests better than the government does. This book is a perfect example of how Sunstein thinks. He shares the liberal-friendly view that people do not always act in their rational self-interest and therefore benefit from government regulation, but he rejects the strongly paternalistic policies that have done more harm than good and are in any event politically unpopular and have led to backlash. His middle way is a sophisticated attempt to support a kind of regulation that might do some good and enjoy political support from both sides of the spectrum, and hence actually have a chance to persist across administrations and vicissitudes in public opinion.
Sunstein is one of the most talented academics around. With his deep knowledge of government regulation, he would be the perfect head of OIRA. Among the many people I have met in academia and government, he is one of the least ideologically rigid, one of the most open to argument and evidence. His critics should at least admit that he will give a fair hearing to their concerns. He would be an extraordinary asset for the Obama administration.
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