Just a Little Nudge
Religion & Liberty Online

Just a Little Nudge

noun_6905_ccJames K. A. Smith reviews Cass Sunstein’s Valuing Life over at the Comment magazine site. It’s a worthwhile read for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it should move Sunstein’s latest up in the queue.

It seems self-evident that everyone should favor “good” regulation, but the trick is getting some consensus on what defines “good” vs. “bad” regulation. A “people” or “person” centered regulation is a good starting place, perhaps. Or as Smith puts it nicely: “Regulation is made for people, not people for regulation.” Maybe what we need is a personalist revolution in regulation, to say nothing of governance more broadly. A political economy for the people? Yes!

I would insist on some clarifications, though, and note that regulators are often the ones most inclined to get that formula mixed up. Who, after all, will regulate the regulators? (I think the rapper Juvenile asked something like that.) So one distinction I would insist on is that the rule of law is not reducible to or coterminous with the minutiae of regulation. In fact, the latter can often conflict with, rather than support, the former.

A few other quibbles:

There is little to no recognition in Smith’s review that the level of regulation consistently identified as “good” (assuming we could agree on what that is: something more concerned with “people” rather than “profits,” no doubt), tends to crowd out the moral self-regulation of the virtuous. A much deeper and more significant problem than the technical problem of “good” vs. “bad” regulation is the danger inherent in the conflation of legality, or regulatory adherence, with morality. Smith says, “Government regulations are one of the sorts of ‘nuts and bolts’ that hold together the girders of our social architecture—and are best complemented by other sorts of ‘regulations,’ such as social mores and cultivated virtues.” I think this gets things precisely backwards. If anything makes up the “nuts and bolts” of the “girders of our social architecture,” it is the moral constitution of the people, not the paper constitution of the civil government, and much less the reams of industry regulations.

As Tocqueville wondered, “How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed?” Or as Burke put it: “Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.” Maybe we just get the regulation we deserve.

Apart from the more interesting moral and juridical questions, however, are the pragmatic political and economic questions. Regulation, it should be noted, tends also to crowd out growth and innovation. Regulation is a cause of the complex of concerning numbers regarding startups, e.g. ‘business dynamism.’ And of course it matters who is doing the nudging (this is another way of getting at the moral virtue vs. regulatory adherence dynamic). Sunstein, like many smarty-pantses (e.g. experts), are pretty sure they know better than other people and are happy not only to tell them what to do, but increasingly help them to do it. Just a little nudge from the loving hand of government is all it takes. Of course, just as businesses and entrepreneurs need to have their activities oriented towards proper ends, so too do bureaucrats and regulators. Public policies, no less than economic models, assume some vision of human flourishing, whether they acknowledge it or not. A key question here is: Who gets to decide?

And so for all the optimism about “good” government and regulation, let’s not forget the inherently “violent” nature of government, even when it has the veneer of benign regulation.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.