Before this book I had never read anything by Cass Sunstein, but I knew the name. Partially it came from his time as head of the Office of Management and Budget in President Obama’s first term, but more so from his frequent mentions by Glenn Beck as a living, breathing, pillar of evil. From the tone and volume of Beck’s cries against anything Sunstein has to say I imagined the book would be filled to the brim with radical, communist, socialist agenda-promoting fantasies from the far-left, but I was somewhat sadly misled.
Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas is a collection of essays by Sunstein ranging over a number of topics. He covers same-sex marriage, global warming, free speech and a number of other hot button issues that we face in the country today. In each chapter he lays out the original problem or situation and proceeds to break it down from each side, measuring the common responses for and against to see which ones pan out. It’s a book written to make you think, not tell you what to think.
When Sunstein first walked into the limelight of the White House administration, the political extremes in the country saw diametrically opposed illusions. The left side of the country imagined wild and radical shifts in government, opening the doors to a wild wonderland of progressiveness and equality for all. The right imagined the complete and utter destruction of personal rights and capitalism, a roller coaster launch straight into the bread lines of Old World Russia. When he turned out to be much more moderate and reasoned in his policies, instead of either side taking a deep breath and releasing some of their fervor, they just hated him.
This book is a perfect reason of why. You cannot pin him down or pigeonhole his outlook into a cozy little box. He references “New Progressivism” numerous times throughout as the way forward, but since it is a political ethos of his own design, he can make it fit whichever legislative outcome he likes. The anti-capitalist crowd might be surprised by Sunstein’s argument against excessive damages in civil trials, including those awarded for emotional loss, suffering or even lost limbs. While the anti-government folks might be shocked by one of his core tenets for the New Progressivism:
This is the sense in which New Progressivists endorse the old idea that there should be “No rights without responsibilities.”
That sounds much more libertarian than communist.
The idea most pursued in this book is the need to really think about your standpoint and follow it beyond the horizon, see where it leads and whether it is worth the journey. Many choices sound beneficial in the outset (like massive increases to the minimum wage to help the working poor rise out of poverty), but when drawn out in studies and historical data they can lead to much different conclusions (dramatically increasing the minimum wage historically creates higher unemployment since only a fraction of the working poor retain higher wage jobs, while the rest are cut completely.)
Sunstein is more a hero for the moderate and studied middle over either extreme. Neither the devil of Glenn Beck’s nightmares nor the revolutionary of radical left, he uses his studies to navigate the chaos of public policy in the modern age.