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.
Paranoid libertarians are like nervous-Nellie air travelers except that they fear the government rather than airplanes. Neglecting their fears can lead to the same perverse results. For example, if the government disregards gun owners’ irrational fear of confiscation and imposes modest background checks, then gun owners might buy and hoard more guns, which could be found by children or eventually make their way to criminals. And then the result is more deaths.
In fact, the fear of government is far more serious than the fear of flying or the fear of nuclear power. If people trust the government, they may accept its assurances that flying or nuclear power is safe. They may absorb the messages of its educational programs. If they don’t trust the government, then no go. “Don’t worry, you can trust us” is, after all, exactly what an evil government would say.
Paranoid libertarians have a favorite (real) enemy: the angry liberal. This was the target of financier Tom Perkins’ notorious letter to the Wall Street Journal. Perkins complained about “demonization of the rich” and suggested progressives might soon inflict a Kristallnacht against one-percenters. Perkins thus exposed himself as a paranoid libertarian—but he is also right that many people on the left are extremely angry at the rich, at Wall Street, at shadowy corporate interests. Occupy Wall Street is the angry institutional counterpart to the paranoid Tea Party.
The angry liberal has distinctive characteristics just like the paranoid libertarian. He is distressed by significant social ills and seeks someone to blame for them. The social ills—inequality, inadequate health care, bad schools—are large ones. But it makes little sense to get angry at rich people for causing them. Most rich people are simply people who chose to go into medicine, finance, or business and then did well as a result of a combination of talent and luck. Others are heirs to family fortunes. The huge level of inequality that currently exists is mostly the result of social trends, not the bad acts of identifiable rich people. Although there are law breakers and other assorted bad guys among the rich who deserve our ire, just as there are among the poor and middle class, it makes no sense to be angry at the rich as a class. We don’t get angry at our friends and relatives who manage to get rich while following the rules. We are more likely to congratulate lottery winners than to condemn them. But then we cheerfully (or angrily) hate wealthy people in the aggregate because they are prospering while others suffer or stagnate.
As a political emotion, anger is just as irrational as fear is, as the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued. Anger typically leads to a desire to punish when in fact the rational thing to do is revise laws and institutions so as to improve people’s lives. Angry liberals who wanted to punish bankers for causing the financial crisis had trouble accepting the government’s view that it can’t chase away the people who know how to run the banks at precisely the moment when banks are failing.
Many people nevertheless insist that anger is needed to mobilize political groups for reform. A similar point could be made in favor of fear. But we usually condemn anger- and fear-mongering politicians as demagogues; once they arouse passions, they can cause a lot of harm. The grain of truth at the heart of Perkins’ paranoid fantasy is that any group can be demonized for political purposes.
The crux of the problem is this: In our current political climate, paranoid libertarians oppose government action that they often wrongly believe will harm them, angering the liberals who believe that government action is needed to solve society’s problems. The liberals’ anger further fuels the libertarians’ paranoia, which hardens their obstructionism, which in turn sends liberals into flights of rage. A huge number of liberals got really angry with Wilentz for calling Snowden a paranoid libertarian. The paranoid libertarian Glenn Beck once called Sunstein “the most dangerous man in America.” Angry liberals got super-mad at Perkins for paranoidly comparing liberals to Nazis. In the midst of this epic food fight, appeals to reason like Sunstein’s and Nussbaum’s are treated as provocations.
We may be caught in this vortex. Or there may be a way for the government to accommodate the fears of paranoid libertarians without further angering angry liberals. But the only way to do that is to reckon with paranoia and anger rather than wish it away.