Eric Posner on "The Paranoid Libertarian and His Enemy, the Angry Liberal"

The Paranoid Libertarian and His Enemy, the Angry Liberal

In a recent essay, Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein identified an impulse he called “paranoid libertarianism.” A paranoid libertarian is someone who distrusts the government to an unreasonable extent. Sunstein believes that many people who oppose gun control, health care reform, and progressive taxation fit the description. For example, a paranoid libertarian might not object to modest gun licensing requirements or background checks in principle but opposes these policies because he believes that the government will deny licenses to people who deserve them, or that a licensing rule will accustom people to gun control, paving the way to confiscation of all handguns. Sunstein argues that these beliefs are unreasonable, and because they often reflect an exaggerated sense of victimization, “paranoid” (rather than merely “unreasonable”) is the right term for them.

Sunstein borrowed the term from a controversial essay by the historian Sean Wilentz, who accused Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and Julian Assange of being paranoid libertarians who hate liberalism. Wilentz argued that liberals should not cheer on these characters because their skepticism about the motives of government officials betrays a lack of trust in government, and without trust in government liberalism is impossible. Sunstein concludes, with apparent good sense, that “Paranoia isn’t a good foundation for public policy.” True, but alas there is no avoiding it. Public policy can’t avoid taking account of irrational views based on emotional reactions, even if—or especially if—they’re nutty.

There are many examples. Many people are terrified of flying on airplanes because they vastly overestimate the risk of a crash (which is pretty close to zero). People are also terrified of genetically modified organisms, nuclear power, and vaccination—all of which are safe. Regulators may be tempted to discount these irrational fears and so lightly restrict these activities commensurate to the real risks. But then the terrors go unaddressed and riskier choice-making ensues. Terrified fliers drive long distances, creating vastly more risk than that which they avoided. What appears to be overregulation turns out to be a necessary accommodation to the ways people actually think and act.