Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule’s Technocratic DespotismRoundup
tags: intellectual history, Legal theory, Technocracy, behavioral economics
Jason Blakely is an associate professor of political science at Pepperdine University and the author, most recently, of We Built Reality: How Social Science Infiltrated Culture, Politics, and Power (Oxford University Press, 2020). He is also a senior fellow at the Nova Forum at the University of Southern California.
At first glance there is perhaps no odder couple in American higher education today than the Harvard law professors Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, whose intellectual partnership straddles the country’s widest political gulf. Sunstein, who was a high-ranking official in the Obama administration, is among the most cited legal scholars of his generation. He is the co-author (with Richard Thaler) of the wildly popular Nudge, which outlines a generally progressive, if eccentric, ideological project called “libertarian paternalism.”
By contrast, Vermeule is a longtime conservative intellectual who clerked for Antonin Scalia, spent the post-9/11 years devising legal apologetics for the expansion of executive power (including torture and ethnic profiling), and was recently appointed by Donald Trump to the Administrative Conference, the federal agency devoted to administration. After converting to Catholicism a few years ago, Vermeule became the most visible defender of an emergent ideology known as Catholic Integralism, which teaches that modern states must be subordinated to the spiritual authority of the Roman Catholic Church.
Sunstein’s and Vermeule’s diametrically opposed political commitments might appear to render their partnership not only implausible but unintelligible. And yet, for over a decade, the two have co-authored long works of legal analysis, most recently Law and Leviathan: Redeeming the Administrative State (Harvard University Press, 2020), in which, not unreasonably, they defend the modern administrative state’s value in securing certain societal goods.
Yet there is also a sinister side to Sunstein and Vermeule’s redemption of administrative power — one that goes well beyond rejecting the libertarian anti-statism so common in American discourse. Law and Leviathan ends up embracing an extreme form of technocracy: rule by social-scientific elites.
Sunstein and Vermeule’s alliance dates to the late 1990s at the University of Chicago, where both were professors of law. Their common ground was then established in the 2008 essay “Conspiracy Theories,” which, like so much of their work, performed the difficult trick of unearthing the most controversial political questions from within the often obscure precincts of administrative law.
The backdrop to the argument was widespread post-9/11 anxiety about the radicalization of social outcasts. Sunstein and Vermeule were especially concerned with klatches of conspiracy theorists who held the American government responsible for the terrorist attacks. The professors’ policy recommendation was nervy. After considering less controversial approaches like disseminating public information, they proposed deploying government agents into civil society to conduct “cognitive infiltration” of “real-space” and “online social networks,” planting “doubts about … theories and stylized facts.” (Vermeule’s own recent descent into conspiracy-theorizing about the 2020 presidential election is an ironic development, and suggests an epistemic problem for technocracy: Experts are not immune to the deceptions of politics.)
How, exactly, would government agents manipulate these groups of citizens? Sunstein and Vermeule’s answer: They would draw on the latest work in cognitive psychology and sociology. Social science could exploit certain mental and social mechanisms to make available a vast new form of power. Such action was ethically justified by the consequentialism common to technocratic thinkers: In this view, a morally responsible political actor was one who was willing to manipulate a population on the basis of his mastery of the complex methods and theories allowing for quantified risk assessment.