In this slim treatise, Cass Sunstein asks us to rethink freedom. He shows that freedom of choice isn’t nearly enough. To be free, we must also be able to navigate life, in order to get where we want to go.
[Sunstein's] opening passage asks a rhetorical question: 'Does freedom of choice promote human well-being? Many people think so.' But he sees a huge catch: 'What if people do not know how to find their way?' ... Sadly, Mr. Sunstein’s emphasis on personal disorders like smoking or alcoholism leads him to ignore or understate real threats to human freedom from private force, or fraud, or political faction. How does a free society best regulate pollution? Does a free society need, or should it even tolerate, labor market regulation? How should it design and pay for physical infrastructure? Enforce antitrust laws? Readers will have to look elsewhere for answers to such questions, all of which turn crucially on questions of individual freedom.
One of the most striking features of On Freedom is...that Sunstein has written a book about liberty that ignores how, even without government interference, the most insidious threats to it transpire when people believe they are in pursuit of their own preferences. The main problem in today’s society is not, as Sunstein maintains, that the state tends to transgress its bounds and overregulate; instead, it is that in the state’s absence, private coercion often holds sway, allowing powerful forces like the 'free market' and structural injustice to reduce humankind to servitude, both in choosing its ends and in fulfilling them ... Sunstein’s thinking never strays far from the mantra that people are in charge of their own preferences and that the main problem is helping individuals get what they want. But without a bigger theory of how people come by their desires, what forces stand in their way, and what democracy can do to help, no approach to navigability can transcend the status of advice on the Titanic long after it has gone steaming toward the iceberg.
Sunstein considers a host of intriguing questions, perhaps most pointedly who should decide what behaviors are good for a person—that person or the 'nudger.' This slip of a book can be quickly read, but puts forth important concepts. Its ideas will stay with readers a long time.