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Cass Sunstein's Unreliable Witness

We have much to learn from Whittaker Chambers, but not for the reason that Cass Sunstein suggests.

10:40 AM, Nov 11, 2013 • By ADAM J. WHITE
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It is always nice to find a columnist looking past the political controversy of the moment, to write instead of great men and more permanent things. And so it was a pleasant surprise to find not one but two Bloomberg View columns dedicated to Whittaker Chambers—by Harvard law professor and former Obama regulatory chief Cass Sunstein, no less.

Sunstein

But reviewing those columns (here and here), it does not take long to see that Sunstein fails to offer an accurate account of Chambers’s life and work, including Chambers’s landmark anti-communist work, Witness. As I’ll explain in detail, Sunstein utterly mischaracterizes Chambers, a deeply principled man with strong beliefs whom Sunstein paints as little more than a skeptic who was “not too sure” whether he “was right.”

This seems a habit for Sunstein who previously drew on caricature of Edmund Burke to construct a theory of "Burkean Minimalism" intended to do little more than deter conservative efforts to roll back liberal Supreme Court precedents. Whether Sunstein does this unwittingly or intentionally, he does no more justice to Chambers than he’s done to Burke.

In the first of his two essays on Chambers, Sunstein had argued that the Alger Hiss—Whittaker Chambers case, in which Chambers exposed a Communist conspiracy reaching the highest levels of mid-century liberal government in Washington, "explains" the modern Tea Party's "suspicions" of liberal social engineering. The TWS Scrapbook already has skewered Sunstein's diagnosis. ("If Sunstein thinks it’s damaging for the Tea Party to accuse liberals of having secret agendas, then he should tell his fellow liberals to stop harboring secret agendas.") So has the Liberty Fund's Richard Reinsch, who literally wrote the book on Chambers.

But Sunstein's second essay on Chambers is even more frustrating. Invoking Chambers’s legendarily harsh review of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, Sunstein sets Chambers against Rand's harsh ideology, and thus against modern politicians (such as Sen. Ted Cruz) who extol Atlas Shrugged today.

“For Chambers,” Sunstein writes (quoting phrases from the Atlas Shrugged review), “the problem is that Rand ‘deals wholly in the blackest blacks and the whitest whites,’ depicting a world in which ‘everything, everybody, is either all good or all bad, without any of those intermediate shades which, in life, complicate reality and perplex the eye that seeks to probe it truly.’”

What, then did Chambers himself stand for? Sunstein explains:

In his review of “Atlas Shrugged,” in “Witness,” and in countless other places, Chambers’ work is closely connected with an important and enduring strand in conservative thought -- one that distrusts social engineering and top-down theories, emphasizes the limits of human knowledge, engages with particulars, and tends to favor incremental change.

“This is the conservatism of Edmund Burke, Michael Oakeshott and Friedrich Hayek,” says Sunstein (confirming once again Jonah Goldberg’s observation that, to liberals, “the only good conservative is a dead conservative”).

Then Sunstein suggests one more comparison for Chambers’s approach: “It endorses the view of Judge Learned Hand, who said at the dawn of World War II that the ‘spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.’”

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