How to Spot a Paranoid Government Bureaucrat

Cass Sunstein is scary – and scared

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Whatever else one might say about Cass Sunstein, he surely knows who his enemies are. The former head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and member of the President’s panel on NSA “reforms” – infamous for his suggestion that government agents should “cognitively infiltrate” alleged “conspiracy-minded” groups – is out with a new one, this time aimed at “paranoid libertarianism.” Taking up where Princeton University historian and Clintonista Sean Wilentz left off, Sunstein avers:

“It can be found on the political right, in familiar objections to gun control, progressive taxation, environmental protection and health-care reform. It can also be found on the left, in familiar objections to religious displays at public institutions and to efforts to reduce the risk of terrorism.”

In short, any objection to the Obama administration’s agenda is indicative of “paranoia” on both sides of the political spectrum. While it would be tempting to write this off as mere partisan bombast, this isn’t the case with Sunstein, an ideologue whose faith in the beneficence of government action underlies all his public pronouncements. If government sees some benefit to state-sponsored displays of religiosity, well then what’s your problem? And as for the Surveillance State – it’s just a program to “reduce the risk of terrorism,” and has absolutely nothing to do with industrial espionagecompiling dossiers on innocent Americans, and tapping Angela Merkel’s phone.

By carrying on the discussion on the plane of High Theory, Sunstein avoids talking about specifics that contradict his thesis: but for those of us not ensconced in the ivory tower of a Harvard professor this simply will not do. In reality, it has been shown that the justification for the National Security Agency’s data dragnet – that it has supposedly stopped several major terrorist plots in the past – is simply untrue.

So how do you spot these libertarian subversives who deserve to be “cognitively infiltrated” and quite possibly suppressed? According to Professor Sunstein, they share five characteristics:

“The first is a wildly exaggerated sense of risks – a belief that if government is engaging in certain action (such as surveillance or gun control), it will inevitably use its authority so as to jeopardize civil liberties and perhaps democracy itself. In practice, of course, the risk might be real. But paranoid libertarians are convinced of its reality whether or not they have good reason for their conviction.”

What would be a “good reason,” in Sunstein’s view? He doesn’t say, conveniently enough, but what about secrecy? Shouldn’t our suspicions be aroused by the fact that the NSA started spying on us behind our backs? Not even the author of the Patriot Act knew it was being utilized by this administration – and its predecessor – to justify scooping up all telephonic and Internet data generated within our borders and far beyond. Why was it all done in the dark, with even the court proceedings “legalizing” this anti-constitutional coup kept secret? The answer is clearly because such brazen chicanery could never stand the light of day.

And surely Sunstein’s argument can be turned around and aimed at its author: isn’t his proposal that the US government hire paid snoops to “cognitively infiltrate” so-called conspiracy theorists on the Internet (and elsewhere) using a hammer to kill a flea? In his infamous paper, he cites polls showing a good proportion of the people of New York believe the 9/11 attacks were the work of the US government, but even if this somewhat dubious statistic reflects reality what is the risk of failing to confront it with government action? Does Sunstein expect 9/11 “truthers” to take over the state of New York anytime soon? Who’s paranoid now?

Which leads us quite naturally into a discussion of the alleged second characteristic of these supposed paranoids:

“A presumption of bad faith on the part of government officials – a belief that their motivations must be distrusted. If, for example, officials at a state university sponsor a Christian prayer at a graduation ceremony, the problem is that they don’t believe in religious liberty at all (and thus seek to eliminate it). If officials are seeking to impose new restrictions on those who seek to purchase guns, the ‘real’ reason is that they seek to ban gun ownership (and thus to disarm the citizenry).

Sunstein’s choice of examples is the equivalent of putting his hands over his ears and shouting “Lalalalalalalala! I can’t hear you!” What we’re talking about is the NSA and its relentless campaign to abolish privacy in much of the world: the key element here, which Sunstein ducks, is secrecy: not even members of Congress knew the nature and extend of the NSA’s all-out assault on the Fourth Amendment. This is enough to assume bad faith on the part of government officials – unless you’re Cass Sunstein, in which case faith in the superior moral status of these officials is akin to a religious dogma.

It’s not surprising Sunstein wants to change the subject and talk about prayer and gun control – after all, he’s appealing to the Democratic party’s “progressive” base, which hates both – but let’s address his disingenuous argument anyway.

As we know, Sunstein’s esteem for the Constitution as written is quite low: after all, this is someone with grave doubts about the First Amendment, which, he avers, needs to be amended to establish “federal guidelines for the coverage of public issues,” i.e. government censorship of the media. So his disdain for the Second Amendment, not to mention the establishment clause of the First, hardly comes as a shock. This is all part of his crackpot idea that we need a “New Deal” for the Constitution – by gutting the Bill of Rights. While Sunstein and his fellow authoritarians want to get rid of the Constitution as we know it, they have yet to muster the political muscle to pull it off: doesn’t the preservation of the rule of law, and the very “liberal state” he says he champions, require that he wait until this sea change is formalized?

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