The Republic of Choosing

William H. Simon in the Boston Review: “Cass Sunstein went to Washington with the aim of putting some theory into practice. As administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) during President Obama’s first term, he drew on the behavioral economics he helped develop as an academic. In his new book, Simpler, he reports on these efforts and elaborates a larger vision in which they exemplify “the future of government.”
Simpler reports some notable achievements, but it exaggerates the practical value of the behaviorist toolkit. The Obama administration’s most important policy initiatives make only minor use of it. Despite its upbeat tone, the book implies an oddly constrained conception of the means and ends of government. It sometimes calls to mind a doctor putting on a cheerful face to say that, while there is little he can do to arrest the disease, he will try to make the patient as comfortable as possible.
…The obverse of Sunstein’s preoccupation with choice architecture is his relative indifference to other approaches to making administration less rigid. Recall that among the problems Sunstein sees with conventional regulation are, first, that it mandates conduct in situations where the regulator doesn’t know with confidence what is the right thing to do, and second, that it is insufficiently sensitive to relevant local variations in taste or circumstances.
The most common way to deal with the first problem—insufficient information—is to build learning into the process of intervention: the regulator intervenes provisionally, studies the effects of her intervention, and adapts as she learns. It is commonplace for statutes to mandate or fund demonstration or pilot projects. More importantly, statutes often demand that both top administrators and frontline workers reassess and adjust their practices continuously. This approach is the central and explicit thrust of Race to the Top’s “instructional improvement systems,” and it recurs prominently in all the statutes mentioned so far.”