Cass Sunstein's Demon

Hamilton Nolan of Gawker was recently incensed  at the spectacle of “dozens of county sheriffs publicly declaring that they won’t enforce the Obama administration’s new gun laws, should they pass. ” Nolan writes saracastically:


Because that’s what good sheriffs do: unilaterally decide what is and is not constitutional, based upon their constitutional law degrees close reading of

What would Nolan make of this declaration by the NLRB’s Chairman that it will ignore a federal court’s decision finding their commissioners were illegally appointed on the grounds that they have “important work to do”?

Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit issued a decision finding that the Jan. 4, 2012 recess appointments of three members to the National Labor Relations Board were invalid. In response, Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce issued the following statement:

“The Board respectfully disagrees with today’s decision and believes that the President’s position in the matter will ultimately be upheld. It should be noted that this order applies to only one specific case, Noel Canning, and that similar questions have been raised in more than a dozen cases pending in other courts of appeals.

In the meantime, the Board has important work to do. The parties who come to us seek and expect careful consideration and resolution of their cases, and for that reason, we will continue to perform our statutory duties and issue decisions.”

If Nolan’s reaction can be predicted by a Gallup survey he’ll probably think that the NLRB’s defiance is just fine but the sheriff’s is plain reprehensible. The Gallup polling organization’s latest survey shows the American public is more polarized than ever before. And that means in plain English, that there are two groups in America living in increasingly separate worlds.


PRINCETON, NJ — During his fourth year in office, an average of 86% of Democrats and 10% of Republicans approved of the job Barack Obama did as president. That 76-percentage-point gap ties George W. Bush’s fourth year as the most polarized years in Gallup records.

The political and cultural divide has been growing for some years now, and it’s bothering some pundits. According to Kathy Cripps. “Pew Research Study has documented polarization over the past twenty five years, noting a widening gap between how Republicans and Democrats have responded to survey questions about personal values”.

The political divide is so deep that it apparently influences how people make consumer choices. When it comes to fast food, Democrats opt for Wendy’s, while Republicans seem to value the freedom of choice (or is it the freshness?) of Subway. The NFL, animal planet, Sony, Starbucks: These are Democratic choices, apparently, while the History Channel, Major League Baseball, Sharp, and Dunkin’ Donuts are red state picks.

Long regarded as a disturbing trend by political observers, polarization has gotten the attention of business leaders in recent years. Morgan Stanley’s chief U.S. economist has estimated that political gridlock will cost the US economy a half point in GDP during this year’s second half. Over a third of companies queried by Morgan Stanley cited paralysis around the Federal budget as a major reason they’re currently restraining their own budget spending. As the President of one industry group was quoted as saying, “It’s totally irresponsible and absolutely insane. “The two parties are really dug in. Companies see the writing on the wall and business decisions are now being made on this.”


Affecting consumer choices? Then it must really be serious. The key to breaking down this gridlock, according to Cass Sunstein, is promoting conversation between the diverging groups. He argues that if they each buy each other a coke, to use the advertising metaphor, they’ll get more peace and harmony between them. He wrote:

A few years ago, I participated in some experiments designed to shed light on how people’s political beliefs are formed. My co-authors and I assembled a number of people in Colorado into all-liberal groups and all-conservative groups. We asked the groups to discuss three issues: climate change, affirmative action and civil unions for same-sex couples…

Our findings were simple. On all three issues, both liberal and conservative groups became more unified and more extreme after talking to one another. Not only in their public verdicts but also in their private, anonymous statements of views. Discussions with one another made conservatives more skeptical of climate change and more hostile to affirmative action and same-sex unions — while liberals showed exactly the opposite pattern.

So why not multiply these experimental situations? Why not start a Federal program to get people to talk to one another.  The problem with such experiments is that they require the application of external energy to create Sunstein’s desired state. That makes them anything but natural; in fact it requires they be funded.


His experiment has similarities to Maxwell’s hypothetical Demon, in which a microscopic intelligent being segregates a container of molecules into two different groups gas at different temperatures, apparently violating the law of thermodynamic without actually doing so. In Sunstein’s case the situation is reversed. His demon takes two populations that are drifting apart and recombines them by forcing them and achieving a kind of convergence.

Critics of Maxwell’s demon argue that it is simply a word game that conceals a dodge. The defiance of thermodynamics is only smoke and mirrors because Maxwell’s demon never actually earns his keep.

Several physicists have presented calculations that show that the second law of thermodynamics will not actually be violated, if a more complete analysis is made of the whole system including the demon. The essence of the physical argument is to show, by calculation, that any demon must “generate” more entropy segregating the molecules than it could ever eliminate by the method described. That is, it would take more thermodynamic work to gauge the speed of the molecules and allow them to selectively pass through the opening between A and B than the amount of energy gained by the difference of temperature caused by this.

What would Sunstein’s consensus society cost? One can imagine a situation where two different populations are diverging because they can more efficiently exist apart than to adapt to another group. The issue then becomes whether the effort required by Sunstein’s demon to keep them together is worth the ticket.


Sometimes it isn’t. This is why countries declare independence or clubs split up or why couples end up in divorce. In such cases the demon fails to justify itself and they’re simply better off apart. But when there’s an economic dependency between two diverging populations a further problem arises. The one can’t let the other go and like Pharaoh and the Hebrews, keep the other however hated, within the fold.

The original Federal structure of the United States solved the problem of minimizing the cost of building a civil society between diverse groups by using loose coupling. It still required Sunstein’s demon but greatly lessened its cost by reducing the number of points on which they had to agree. This limited the dependence of one group upon any other by reason of economy; they could differ yet successfully coexist because their enforced consensus did not cost each more concessions than it could bear. By contrast a fully centralized system would require a degree of uniformity that would be expensive to achieve.

To return to Sunstein’s experiment, it is clear that the more points on which the conservatives and liberals in the room had to agree the higher the wage of the demon.

The most perverse outcome occurs when Sunstein’s demon is actually a losing proposition that must be maintained because a centralized system is desired at all costs. People are taxed more for the purpose of maintaining the centralization than for consensus; and the only hope of the music continuing is to so improve indoctrination, for want of a better term; that the volonte generale can be enforced. The economic survival of the centralized system becomes completely dependent on the continued funding of the demon. It becomes, not a case of “I want to buy the world a coke” but “I have to buy the world a coke”.


There are obviously a range of outcomes between fully integration and complete disassociation. But to state the extreme positions may be helpful to contrast them.  Those who believe that convergence is destiny may quote Norman McClean who wrote “eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”

But the dissenters may recall Aidan Chambers.

Do I change like a river, widening and deepening, eddying back on myself sometimes, bursting my banks sometimes when there’s too much water, too much life in me, and sometimes dried up from lack of rain? Will the I that is me grow and widen and deepen? Or will I stagnate and become an arid riverbed? Will I allow people to dam me up and confine me to wall so that I flow only where they want? Will I allow them to turn me into a canal to use for they own purposes? Or will I make sure I flow freely, coursing my way through the land and ploughing a valley of my own?

What says the demon to that?

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99

Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99

No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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