A Tale of Three Swords

© 2014 David Bornus

 As a policy and compliance director with the Minnesota Department of Human Services, David Bornus’ guest blog reviews Cass Sunstein’s Valuing Life:  Humanizing the Regulatory State (University of Chicago Press, 2014).  The views expressed in this blog are his own, and not those of the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

 Since an angel’s flaming sword barred Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24), humanity has lived in a state of brokenness, beset by sin.  Jesus Christ, whose death upon a Cross offers relief from sin’s powers in this life, promises to return one day with a sword that will destroy sin forever (Revelation 1:16, 19:21) when He makes all things new.  Until that day comes, God has established government, bearing the sword of coercive power, to mitigate the effects of evil in a fallen world (Romans13: 1-7).  But governing is not a simple matter: It requires great wisdom (1 Kings 3:9).  Christians, as God’s servants, can contribute godly influence through participating in the work of government. 

 The challenge for Christians in government is to apply this influence within a diverse dialogue of competing worldviews, checks and balances, and an array of federal, state, and local (county/city) agencies performing legislative, executive, and judicial functions. To be effective, Christians must learn to function within the daily sausage-making of public policy, always knowing that perfection cannot be reached in mere human strength. 

 The book Valuing Life gives an in-depth look at the intricacies of the work of one federal agency that bears that sword of “coercive power.”  From 2009 until 2012, Cass Sunstein was the Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), an agency which reviews proposed federal regulations for stakeholder input and critique.  Chapter one describes the organization and inner workings of this agency.  The goal of OIRA is to maximize the "net benefit" of regulation (i.e., benefit exceeds costs).

 Sunstein describes how accumulated requirements create a kind of "common law" that proposed regulations must meet (pg. 63).  This is to ensure that analysis is based as much as possible on evidence and data rather than intuition, dogma, or anecdote.  In Chapter two, Sunstein reviews numerous examples of the almost robotic cost-benefit analysis that results, using legally-defined metrics such as the "value of a single life" (VSL) and "willingness to pay" (WTP) on the part of an average individual citizen. 

 Although this appears very scientific, what values influence variables such as VSL and WTP?  In chapters three through seven, Sunstein discusses how these values differ by country/region, socioeconomic class, age, and other demographics, as well as subjective skewing.  He also shows that "purely semantic shifts in framing" an issue are sufficient to alter moral intuitions (pg. 143). For example, people are more averse to perceived loss (e.g., “if we do this, ten people out of a million will die”) versus framing the results in terms of diminished percentages (e.g., “the mortality risk of this approach is .0001%”).  He also shows that recent intensely negative events drive subsequent decision making out of proportion to probability of re-occurrence.  These effects are especially common in a media-saturated world of sensational visual imagery as well as sound-bite attack politics.  

 Sunstein’s work points to the danger of governing in a fallen world among competing worldviews:  How does society establish what is right and wrong, desirable or undesirable?  While a secular approach relies on the aggregate result of majority opinion, guided by contemporary legal constraints, science, and polling, Christians have access to a greater calculus, that of the Author of Existence for whom the “value of a single life” and “willingness to pay” find their ultimate answer in Christ.  It is this perspective which Christians are responsible to contribute, working as God leads.  In doing so, Christians utilize a fourth sword, the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17).

 Additionally, Christians recognize the limitations of regulation to advance human flourishing.  Regulation can mitigate the impact of evil and human misbehavior, but motives other than obedience are what induce greater good and progress.  Similar to the hammer that sees a world of nails, there can be a naïve assumption of “better living through regulation,” or “there oughtta be a law” in response to every problem.  But regulation alone has little impact without executive-branch resources for enforcement and compliance monitoring.  To paraphrase Ecclesiastes 12:12, “in the making of many laws there is no end, and much regulation is a challenge for dedicated public servants to effectively implement.”

 While Sunstein’s highly technical detail may exceed the interest of a casual reader, Valuing Life is an illuminating resource for students of public policy, political science, law, or economics.  For Christians, it is an opportunity to think about the intricacy and challenge of being salt and light in the work of secular government, advancing human flourishing and restraining evil until Christ’s return, when the nations will bring their glory into the Heavenly city and walk in its light (Revelation 21:24-26).

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