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Why Societies Need Dissent By Cass R. Sunstein (Harvard University Press, 246 pages, $22.95) In many regimes throughout history, Cass R. Sunstein of the University of Chicago School of Law would have been banished or possibly even executed for his new book, Why Societies Need Dissent. Ironically, the book is a social scientist’s warning to regimes that discourage dissent: enforce conformity at your own risk � not because the people will rebel, but because you cannot govern without the benefit of diverse perspectives. Sunstein begins and ends by disclaiming the notion that dissidents are typically self-centered or self-aggrandizing; on the contrary, dissidents risk social backlash at a minimum, and sometimes their careers or their physical safety, while conformists are “free-riders, benefiting from the actions of others without adding anything of their own.” By the same logic, Sunstein doesn’t let anyone brand nonconformists as lazy � it’s always easy to go along with the mainstream and relatively hard to stand against it. The larger point, however, is that dissent is an act of contributing to society some novel information or perspective � an act that is unappreciated as often as it is useful. And it’s a welcome sentiment in an age when the attorney general’s most famous and resonant utterance is that “Americans need to watch what they say.” It is also important, Sunstein points out, to distinguish between the dissident and the contrarian. The contrarian disagrees with predecessors or peers in the belief that there is some reward to be gained by doing so; the dissident disagrees in the belief that predecessors or peers are mistaken. Dissent and contrarianism might coincide, but a known contrarian can seldom be an effective voice of dissent. Efficacy matters. Sunstein is concerned not only with dissent from the establishment, but dissent within the establishment: Judges and lawmakers tend to move in partisan lock step, he finds, with adverse effects on public policy. Indeed, he is only incidentally concerned with the value of dissent as a tenet of democracy � rather, his point is that societies inhospitable to dissent have a tendency to fail. “Well-functioning societies” � not only nations, but corporate boards, universities, juries, and other deliberative institutions � “take steps to discourage conformity and to promote dissent,” and they do so out of rational self-interest. Groups whose members are exposed to a limited range of views are prone to error, and in case that isn’t obvious, Sunstein examines a large body of empirical studies of the role of information in group behavior. The results are compelling, but more in the manner of an MBA textbook than a bugle call. And his message deserves a bugle call. In a thesis defending one of the core values of democratic society, undue fixation with social science experiments can seem almost disrespectfully trivial. The mathematics of conformity can be explored through case studies of complex decisions, but Sunstein relies mainly on experiments involving a game of probability and chance based on picking colored balls out of different urns. Few questions facing a jury, a bench, an electorate, or the consuming public are so simple or have objectively right answers. The notable exception is a chapter based on case study of judicial panels. Sunstein finds evidence of conformist tendency in the fact that a conservative judge sitting with two liberal colleagues is likely to write, or join, a more liberal opinion than when sitting with two conservative colleagues. The bench is not immune to “informational cascades,” in which individuals tend to be influenced by perspectives already presented, or to “reputational cascades,” in which individuals tend to defer to others in order to minimize conflict or criticism. In one experiment that did attempt to deal with a more complex body of information, mock search panels were presented with mock job applicants whose credentials were rigged to make one candidate clearly superlative. Each panelist was given incomplete information about each candidate, so the panelists would have to compare notes. The intended candidate was seldom selected. Analysis found that information tending to promote consensus was valued more highly than information tending to promote debate, and specifically, that “groups tend to dwell on shared information and to neglect information that is held by a few members.” As Sunstein adds, “this tendency can lead to big errors.” (The wreck of the space shuttle Columbia comes to mind, as it was foreseen by a few lowly engineers whose e-mailed warnings were shrugged off by NASA management. Likewise, the college student who recently smuggled box cutters onto passenger airliners was, in however unlawful a manner, furnishing esoteric information to the isolated information climate of the Transportation Security Administration and perhaps preventing future “big errors.”) The same tendency can lead to extreme responses, whether fundamentally correct or not. Sunstein finds that deliberative groups � notably juries and judicial panels � do not have a moderating effect on members’ opinions, as is commonly believed, but a polarizing one: If a group is in general agreement, the certainty and fervor of its collective opinion tends to be amplified. (“A group of people who think that global warming is a serious problem will, after discussion, tend to think that global warming is a very serious problem. Those who approve of an ongoing war effort will, as a result of discussion, become still more enthusiastic about that effort.”) At a glance, this seems to contradict the Condorcet Jury Theorem � as Sunstein explains, Condorcet holds that “the probability of a correct answer by a majority of the group increases toward certainty as the size of the group increases.” But the theorem assumes that each individual is more likely to be right than wrong, and that each individual expresses independent judgment. Neither assumption is necessarily true, and Sunstein returns to the study of “cascades” that propagate error. “When interdependent judgments are being made and when some people are wrong,” he concludes, the theorem “offers no clear predictions.” It is therefore in the best interest of the group to be exposed to information that challenges its collective assumptions. Right on cue, Sunstein makes reference to “Twelve Angry Men,” in which a lone holdout halts a cascade of faulty logic and reverses the opinions of 11 fellow jurors. Having established that “better outcomes can be expected from any system that creates incentives for individuals to reveal information to the group,” Sunstein turns to the practical question: given a tendency to conform, how can we establish a climate in which people “say what they think”? At least in the United States, with a large and diverse population, he supposes it’s easy, even inevitable. “If a society contains innumerable groups, . . . innumerable ideas and perspectives should emerge. A nation that contains (among many others) environmentalists, religious fundamentalists, free-market libertarians, animal rights activists, and egalitarians is likely to benefit” from a political process that yields a large “total stock of argument pools.” But ask environmentalists, religious fundamentalists, free-market libertarians, animal rights activists, and egalitarians whether they think their interests tend to get a fair hearing in the political process. At least since then-President Bill Clinton invented “triangulation,” and arguably since the Democrats and Republicans arm-wrestled for dibs on the nomination of Dwight Eisenhower, the prevailing tendency in U.S. politics has been toward a centrist notion of “consensus” � a code word for less diversity of opinion. Today, no presidential contender polling in double-digits would seriously entertain debate over continued U.S. recognition of the World Trade Organization, or a more collegial role on the United Nations Security Council, or the trickle-up economy in which it’s OK to give taxpayer assistance to big business but not to poor individuals. Debate is reserved for matters that affect individuals � same-sex marriage, late-term abortion, prescription marijuana � but on big-picture issues, marginal opinions tend to be, well, marginalized. Sunstein � and the Founders, he argues � would warn us against such a climate. If the mere suggestion that the United States should make substantial cuts in military spending elicits cries of “commie” or “traitor,” then we’re in trouble; step outside and give it a try. The government is, however, structured to discourage cascades of error. Sunstein attributes the bicameral legislature to this motive, citing James Wilson’s observation that a single house could suffer “sudden and violent fits of despotism, injustice, and cruelty.” Even more fundamentally, in the context of Sunstein’s argument that the nation has (at least sometimes) “a legitimate interest in introducing diversity of opinion into domains that otherwise consist of like-minded people,” freedom of association is a sine qua non of debate and dissent. One more disclaimer is in order: Sunstein does not suggest that all conflict is healthy. He makes a distinction between interpersonal conflict (which does not tend to improve the outcome of debate) and substantive conflict (which does). Citing research from the Wharton School, he explains, “Diversity of information is the most important variable” in group process, and “conflicts about substance are most likely to be helpful. . . . If people are fighting because of personal animus, they are less likely to accomplish their tasks.” If this distinction invites a “No, duh,” it bears emphasis that personal animus is not inherent in dissent. Efforts to quantify the importance of dissent may be helpful, but they play a disproportionate role in this important book. The point is made at least as well anecdotally � for example, in the introduction, in a brief recap of the Bay of Pigs incident. This is rousing, heady stuff � democratic fundamentalism � and Sunstein should frame it accordingly. The Founders did not cite think-tank studies to prove that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, or couch the Sixth Amendment in a white paper showing a correlation between jury trials and the public perception of justice. If it means anything to be American, it means knowing intuitively, yet unequivocally, that these things are important � and that dissent is not only the hallmark of freedom but, in the case of our nation, its origin. Indeed, we should be ashamed that Sunstein even needed to remind us. Mike Livingston is a free-lance writer based in Takoma Park, Md. He is the lead author of The Newcomer’s Handbook for Washington, D.C., 3rd edition, published by First Books in 2002; his next book, The Newcomer’s Handbook for the USA, is due later this year from First Books.

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