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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 59

Cass R. Sunstein — On Freedom

On Freedom (book cover)

In this pathbreaking book, New York Times bestselling author 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. People often need something like a GPS device to help them get where they want to go — whether the issue involves health, money, jobs, children, or relationships.

In both rich and poor countries, citizens often have no idea how to get to their desired destination. That is why they are unfree. People also face serious problems of self-control, as many of them make decisions today that can make their lives worse tomorrow. And in some cases, we would be just as happy with other choices, whether a different partner, career, or place to live — which raises the difficult question of which outcome best promotes our well-being.

Accessible and lively, and drawing on perspectives from the humanities, religion, and the arts, as well as social science and the law, On Freedom explores a crucial dimension of the human condition that philosophers and economists have long missed — and shows what it would take to make freedom real.

In addition to discussing his book Sunstein and Shermer talk about what it was like to work in the Obama administration, the issue of free will and determinism in the context of his theory of libertarian paternalism and choice architecture, opt-in vs. opt-out programs related to everything from menu options to organ donations, the electoral college, term limits for Supreme Court Justices, free speech on college campuses (and trigger warnings, safe spaces, and micro aggressions), Universal Basic Income, taxes, and terrorism.

About Professor Sunstein’s principle, Dr. Shermer wrote in his book The Mind of the Market:

Libertarian paternalism makes a deeper assumption about our nature — that at our core we are moral beings with a deep and intuitive sense about what is right and wrong, and that most of the time most people in most circumstances choose to do the right thing. Thus, applying the principle of libertarian paternalism to the larger politico-economic system as a whole, I suggest that the default option should be to grant people the libertarian ideal of maximum freedom, while using the best science available to inform the policy that gives structure to the minimum number of restrictions on our freedoms. Let’s opt for more freedom and add back restrictions on freedom only where absolutely necessary and with great reluctance.

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This Science Salon was recorded on March 4, 2019.

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This episode was released on March 26, 2019.

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