(Originally posted in October of 2010. I was reminded of this post by Stuart Schneiderman’s post here about the growing acceptance of the idea that government knows best what’s good for everyone..and should have the power to make them do it. I should note that Cass Sunstein is no longer an Obama Czar but is back to being a law professor.)
I haven’t read Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom, but Erin O’Connor has been reading it and reviews it here. Based on her summary, it seems that Franzen’s basic opinion about freedom is this: he doesn’t like it very much. Consider for example these excerpts:
…the American experiment of self-government, an experiment statistically skewed from the outset, because it wasn’t the people with sociable genes who fled the crowded Old World for the new continent; it was the people who didn’t get along well with others.…also: The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.
“Freedom,” for Franzen, is a red herring. As a national ideal, it paralyzes us, preventing government from behaving with the rationalism of European nations (there are passages about this in the book). And, on a personal level, it is simply immiserating. Every last one of Franzen’s major characters suffers from the burden of too many choices.
In a novel, of course, one cannot assume that opinions expressed by the characters are those of the author himself–but in this case, it seems to me that they likely are, and this opinion appears to be shared by most commenters at Erin’s post.
What really struck me in Erin’s review is her remark that I am starting to think that this novel may amount to a fictional companion piece for Cass Sunstein’s Nudge..the referenced work being not a novel, but a book about social, economic, and political policy co-authored by Cass Sunstein, who is now runnning the Office of Regulatory and Information Policy for the Obama administration. (See a review of Nudge, Erin’s post about the book, and my post about some of Sunstein’s policy ideas.)
Shortly after reading Erin’s review, I encountered this NYT article by a philosophy professor who talks about the “seething anger” of the Tea Parties. Two excerpts: The great and inspiring metaphysical fantasy of independence and freedom is simply a fantasy of destruction and To date, the Tea Party has committed only the minor, almost atmospheric violences of propagating falsehoods, calumny and the disruption of the occasions for political speech — the last already to great and distorting effect. (I would think a philosophy professor should be aware that “propagating falsehoods,” even if such a charge were true, is not violence–and asserting that it is seems to me to be inherently undercutting of free speech and to be intellectually preparing the battlefield for various forms of speech-control.)
Indeed, I’ve run into quite a few articles lately in which the memes people are bad at making choices and too much choice makes people unhappy are propagated. Often, the insights of behavioral economics are used or misused to support this thesis. The overall idea seems to be that people will be both better-off and happier if more of their life decisions are made for them by better-qualified elites. (The question of why the conceptual and emotional traps that affect human decision-making don’t also apply to these elites–the question of “who will nudge the nudgers”–tends to go unanswered.)
It has been believed for some time that intellectuals tend to be especially supportive of freedom..but it’s not clear that this really has historical warrant, especially if we generalize “intellectuals” to “the scribe class”, i.e., people who read and write for a living, ranging from medieval clerics to British schoolmasters of the Thomas Arnold era to modern college professors. Indeed, the attacks on individual freedom and choice seem to be propagating mainly among the members of our modern scribe class. I certainly don’t think there is any kind of central Illuminati directing the propagation of these memes; however, many members of this class clearly feel threatened by current turns of political opinion, and the high degree of conformity and groupthink within this class ensures rapid transmission of ideas that are judged to be socially acceptable in their circles. It appears that the critique of choice is now such an idea.
Original CB discussion thread here.