Fizzy Drink or Fuzzy Thinking?

Questionable arguments in Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule’s critique of anti-administrativism

I have finally started reading Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule’s Law and Leviathan: Redeeming the Administrative State. As it says on the tin, the (very short) book is a defence of the administrative state, and of American administrative law, against criticism by those who ― like me ― would to tear it all, or at least much of it, down. Ostensibly, the book is offered as something of an olive branch, an argument for why those who suspect that the administrative state is inimical to the Rule of Law are mistaken about this, and can, if not embrace powerful government agencies vested with vast discretionary powers, then at least make peace with their existence.

But it gets off to a questionable start in the first chapter, which describes ― and pokes fun at ― anti-administrativist thinking, which Professors Sunstein and Vermeule brand “the New Coke”, ostensibly in reference to Chief Justice Sir Edward Coke, whom anti-administrativists like Philip Hamburger regard as a hero of opposition to executive-branch tyranny but presumably also to one of the biggest flops in the history of marketing. I don’t mind the jab ― it is amusing, although of course the Chief Justice’s name doesn’t sound like that Coke. I do mind that the argument is less forthright than it ought to be.

Professors Sunstein and Vermeule make two main points in their first chapter. One, which is less interesting both to them and surely to most of their non-American readers, is that there is no particularly strong reason to think that the US Constitution’s original meaning outlaws the modern administrative state. The other, in which they are more invested and which will resonate abroad (indeed they assert, in the introduction, that their argument is “promising … for nations all over the world” (18)), is that the administrative state is essential for government to do its rightful work, and that its critics are mistaken to only focus on its alleged dangers for democracy and liberty. This is what interests me here.

One argument I find objectionable has to with the relationship between the administrative state, liberty, and markets, and the relationship of the law, especially the common law, with all three. While anti-administrativists see the administrative state as a threat to be neutralized,

[f]or the theorists and architects of the modern administrative state, private power, exercised through delegation of legal powers and entitlements by the common law and by market ordering, was itself a threat to individual liberty. Hence vigorous government, checking the abuse of corporate and other private power, was deemed just as indispensable to liberty as were constraints on executive abuse. Consider, for example, the question whether the Social Security Administration, the National Labour Relations Board, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Federal Trade Commission are threats to freedom or indispensable to it ― questions on which reasonable people differ. (30)

There are several problems with this. First, the claim that private liberty is just something “delegated by the common law” is, at best, taking sides in a contentious debate. The common law itself did not see things that way. A person is free to do that which the law does not prohibit; he or she does not require the law’s permission.

Second, I think it’s quite fair to say that “vigorous government checking the abuse of … private power” is important. Recall Dicey’s example of Voltaire being “lured off from the table of a Duke, and was thrashed by lackeys in the presence of their noble master” and “unable to obtain either legal or honourable redress”. But to say so is not to answer the questions of what forms of “private power” can legitimately be checked by the state, and how they should be checked. Professors Sunstein and Vermeule want us to assume that refusal to deal is the same thing as a private violence in this regard, and that an administrative agency making law and adjudicating claims that the law it made has been infringed is no different from the police and independent courts enforcing the criminal law. These things don’t follow.

And third, the question Professors Sunstein and Vermeule pose is misleading. Reasonable people really should not differ on whether administrative agencies that can create rules backed by the threat of penal sanctions are a threat to liberty. Of course they are! What reasonable people can differ about is whether, all things considered, the threat is offset by, on the one hand, the good these agencies might do and, on the other, the mechanisms that might be devised for controlling and minimizing it. I think that it’s fair for them to argue that the administrative state does good things and that its critics have an unwisely single-minded worldview (whether or not these arguments ultimately succeed is, of course, a different question). But to deny that the administrative state threatens liberty is to peddle a similarly one-sided set of beliefs.

Professors Sunstein and Vermeule go on to give an example of how private law and private power threaten liberty, so that the administrative state is no more coercive than private ordering which it displaces:

If some people have a lot and other people have only a little, it is … not because of purely voluntary achievements and failures, important as those are. It is also because of what the law chose to recognize, protect, or reward. A homeless person, for example, is deprived of access to shelter by virtue of the law of property, which is emphatically coercive. In these circumstances, the creation of modern agencies … did not impose law or coercion where unregulated freedom previously flourished. They substituted one regulatory system for another. (31)

This, again, is quite misleading, and indeed the example comes close to doing the opposite of what Professors Sunstein and Vermeule intend ― it shows the dangers of the administrative state rather than its benefits. A homeless person is not deprived of shelter by “the law of property”, but by refusals to deal on the part of prospective landlords ― and possibly, at one remove, by prospective employers.

I’ll explain why the difference matters presently, but first, it’s important to see that the “law of property” would just as happily assure a person of a home as deny them one. Indeed, when we consider how attempts to interfere with the law of property have fared, we can see that, if anything, it would much rather provide shelter to everyone, as it were. Attempts to abolish private property in land and housing in the Soviet Union did not eliminate homelessness ― but they did result in a dire shortage of housing, such that multiple families were forced to share “communal apartments” with a handful of others if they were lucky, and with dozens if they were not. (My mother was born in such an “apartment” which her parents shared with seven other families.) Less dramatically and closer to us, administrative interference with property rights by means of zoning and building codes raises the cost of housing and prevents enough of it from being built ― which, of course, helps make people homeless in the first place.

In a competitive marketplace, refusal to deal by a prospective landlord or employer will seldom condemn a person to homelessness. Because landlords and employers compete for tenants and employees as much as the latter compete for apartments and jobs, some will moderate their demands to the point when even people who are not well off and/or have limited skills will find something for them. To be sure, some people will still need help ― temporarily in some cases, permanently in others. But this help can take the form of cash transfers, rather than regulation. But once regulation, often enacted by the administrative state, starts restricting the supply of housing or raising the cost of workers beyond what they can produce, refusals to deal by the artificially depressed number of landlords and employers risk becoming much more dramatic. In short, Professors Sunstein and Vermeule, like many well-intentioned pro-administrativists before them, are presenting as solutions mechanisms that often serve to aggravate problems they purport to solve.

This brings me to the last issue I would like to address. Professors Sunstein and Vermeule quote at length a wonderful passage from “The Federalist No. 41“, by James Madison ― a hero for many originalists and supporters of limited government whom they are eager to enlist as an ally to their cause:

It cannot have escaped those who have attended with candor to the arguments employed against the extensive powers of the government, that the authors of them have very little considered how far these powers were necessary means of attaining a necessary end. They have chosen rather to dwell on the inconveniences which must be unavoidably blended with all political advantages; and on the possible abuses which must be incident to every power or trust, of which a beneficial use can be made. … [C]ool and candid people will at once reflect, that the purest of human blessings must have a portion of alloy in them; that the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least of the GREATER, not the PERFECT, good; and that in every political institution, a power to advance the public happiness involves a discretion which may be misapplied and abused. They will see, therefore, that in all cases where power is to be conferred, the point first to be decided is, whether such a power be necessary to the public good; as the next will be, in case of an affirmative decision, to guard as effectually as possible against a perversion of the power to the public detriment.

Professors Sunstein and Vermeule rely on Madison in support of their rejection of “a fallacious mode of reasoning that afflicts the New Coke critics of executive power” ― namely,

selective attention … to the risks of … government action, as opposed to inaction; to the risks arising from the functions of government, as opposed to dysfunctional governments … ; to the risks generated by new powers, as opposed to t he risks arising from old powers that the new powers could be used to counter. (34-35)

This is not altogether unfair: it would indeed be a mistake to only assess government institutions by the potential for abuse of their powers, without asking what good they might be able to do.

But Madison does not stop at this. His affirmative prescription is just as important as his critical point. He says that we must always ask whether a proposed government power “is necessary to the public good”. Put to one side the question of whether the public good is a useful or meaningful metric. (I have just argued that it is not.) It’s Madison’s necessity standard that I want to emphasize. Necessity is a high bar; it is not enough that a proposed power might be advantageous ― it has to be necessary. This is not obviously a prescription for expansive government, let alone for an expansive administrative state. And then, even with necessary powers, Madison says that we must “guard as effectually as possible against a perversion of the power to the public detriment”. This dovetails nicely with his concern for dispersing and checking powers explored in later (and better-known) papers.

The anti-administrative case isn’t that the administrative state can do no good. Of course it can, sometimes. It is, first, that the administrative state is often actively harmful ― on balance, even accounting for the good it can do ― such that it cannot be regarded as necessary; and, second, that the structure of administrative institutions is such that they fail to provide effectual guardrails against the perversion of their powers. The rest of Law and Leviathan is meant as a response to this last contention and, if its arguent succeeds, it will address part of the anti-administrativists’ concerns. But it will be less important part, as the order of Madison’s requirements makes clear. Devising protections against the abuse of power can only come after we have established that the power is necessary. And anti-administrativists’ concerns on this first front cannot be assuaged by simply pointing to the good that the administrative state might do ― least of all when, as in the example offered by Professors Sunstein and Vermeule ― the good is an illusion that rests on faulty or misleading claims about the nature and effect of coercion in the administrative state and in the market.

Common Factionalism

The political rhetoric of the common good is poorly disguised factionalism, which the thinkers in whose name it is being advanced would have abhorred

The idea that law and politics should be organized around the principle of the “common good” is in the air on the political right. The left, of course, has had its versions of it for a long time. Both co-blogger Mark Mancini and I have written about “common good” arguments about legal issues, specifically the administrative state (Mark), constitutional law (me), and the Charter’s “notwithstanding clause” (also me), and found them severely wanting. A couple of recent newspaper articles give us an idea of what the “common good” philosophy looks like in practical politics.

On the northern side of the world’s longest closed border, Ginny Roth, writing in the National Post, identifies the Conservative platform in the late and lamented election with “a rich tradition of common-good conservatism that looks more like Edmund Burke than John Locke”. The master idea of this “new conservatism” (wait, is it new or richly traditional? never mind) is that “Conservatives must be positioned to build on the coalition of voters that will support it in this election by correctly identifying what appealed to them about the leader, the party and the platform”. Less blandly, “the left must not have a monopoly on populist politics”. The right should imitate the left, and in doing so advance the policies favoured, or assumed to be favoured, by “coalitions of voters who think the opposite of what the cocktail party goers do”. 

The same ideas, if that’s what they are, are to be found south of the aforementioned border in Josh Hammer’s column in Newsweek. (Mr. Hammer, it is worth noting, is one of if not the closest thing the “common good” movement has to a leader. He is also, apparently, a research fellow with an outfit called the Edmund Burke Foundation.) Mr. Hammer defends bans on private businesses requiring their employees or customers to be vaccinated against the present plague. In doing so, he claims to take the side of “common-good-inspired figures” against “the more adamantly classical liberal, libertarian-inspired pundits and politicians who believe the quintessence of sound governance is simply permitting individuals and private entities to do what they wish”. Mr. Hammer “explains” that “[v]accine mandates will be a convenient fig leaf for a ruling class already gung-ho at the possibility of precluding conservatives from the full panoply of in-person public life”. (Why is that the defenders of tradition so often struggle with their native tongue?) This “wokeist ruling class” must be stopped by a “prudential use of state power to secure the deplorables’ basic way of life”.


With apologies to H.L. Mencken, “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard” seems to be an excellent description of common good conservatism, as propounded by Ms. Roth and Mr. Hammer. The common people are entitled to get their way, and to have the state’s coercive force used to ensure that they get their way. And no need to ask whether their preferences are consonant with some objective standards of morality, or the teachings of experts ― be it in economics, in epidemiology, or what have you. The beliefs of the common people are entitled to prevail because they are their beliefs, not because they are right.

Of course, it’s only the common people, that is, the right kind of people, that are entitled to have their way. The woke cocktail-swilling pundits and politicians are not. Even entrepreneurs, whom the conservatives of yesteryear lionized, must take their orders from those who do not drink cocktails. In other words, what Ms. Roth and Mr. Hammer are promoting under the name of the common good is the view that the aim of politics is to give effect to the wishes of

a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

This is James Madison’s famous definition of faction, in Federalist No. 10. Ms. Roth might not have, but Mr. Hammer, who affects to be a constitutional sage as well as a political visionary, presumably has read the Federalist Papers. He’s read them, and has evidently concluded that he is cleverer than Madison, who feared faction as the seed of tyranny, civil strife, and destruction, and looked for ways to limit its ill-effects.

Madison saw the remedy in “[a] republic, … a government in which the scheme of representation takes place”. A “republic”, so understood, would

refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.

Not so for Ms. Roth and Mr. Hammer. Not for them the refining and enlargement of public views by representatives. (It’s the cocktails, don’t you know?) The people themselves, and more precisely the “deplorables”, the ones whose views are the opposite of refined and enlarged, who must govern, and officials are to take their marching orders from them.

Poor Edmund Burke is spinning in his grave. His single most famous idea is doubtless the argument he advanced in his “Speech to the Electors of Bristol”, which deserves to be quoted at length here:

Certainly … it ought to be the happiness and glory of a Representative, to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion high respect; their business unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and, above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But, his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you; to any man, or to any sett of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the Law and the Constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your Representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

My worthy Colleague says, his Will ought to be subservient to yours. If that be all, the thing is innocent. If Government were a matter of Will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But Government and Legislation are matters of reason and judgement, and not of inclination; and, what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one sett of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?

The populism masquerading as “common good” conservatism being peddled by Ms. Roth and Mr. Hammer is the opposite not only of John Locke’s ideas and James Madison’s, but also of the deeply held views of the great man they dishonour by pretending to admire him.


I should note that there a more purely intellectual and, not coincidentally, intellectually respectable version of the “common good” thought. For the reasons some of which I set out more fully in my earlier posts, I don’t find it compelling. But, at its best, it does involve an honest reflection on the good of the community rather than window-dressing for factionalism. Michael Foran speaks from this perspective when he tweets that “[t]he Common Good shouldn’t be used as the new phrase for whatever political position one happens to already hold. A claim that X is in the common good needs to explain how X is both genuinely good and genuinely common in its goodness.”

As it happens, Adrian Vermeule (among others) has recently shared his thoughts on vaccine mandates with Bari Weiss, and they are not at all in line with Mr. Hammer’s. Along with much sniping at libertarians (does he think Mr. Hammer is one?), he argues that “the vaccine mandate is analogous in principle to … crisis measures” such as wartime conscription or the destruction of property to stop a fire: “[o]ur health, our lives and our prosperity, are intertwined in ways that make it entirely legitimate to enforce precautions against lethal disease — even upon objectors”.

The point is not really that Professor Vermeule is right (which I’m inclined to think he is, albeit not quite for the reasons he advances), and Mr. Hammer is wrong. It’s not even that their disagreement exposes the vacuity of the common good as a standard against which to measure policy (though it at least points in that direction). For my present purposes, it’s that the partisan version of the “common good” ideology, which Mr. Hammer and Ms. Roth represent, has next to nothing to do with its more cerebral namesake exemplified by Professor Vermeule’s comments to Ms Weiss. In its partisan incarnation, common good talk is nothing more than a fig-leaf meant to hide ― none too well, mind you ― the narcissism and cultural resentment that its promoters impute to a part of the electorate.

Madison and Canadian Constitutional Law

Because we are in the slow days of summer, and I have a bit more time on my hands than I would usually have, I picked up a copy of Richard Matthews’ 1995 book, If Men Were Angels: James Madison & the Heartless Empire of Reason. Immediately, one’s Canadian eyes might begin to glaze over. Why should one care about an American Founding Father, specifically one that is somewhat more obscure in the common eye than Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton? To my mind, Madison raises a number of implications for contemporary debates in Canada about the nature of our government and the interpretation of our Constitution. In this post, I’d like to address two of those implications. First is the idea of deference to legislatures, and how Madison’s views serve as lighting rods for debate on the relative institutional capacities of courts and legislatures. Secondly, and more controversially, is the idea of to whom the Constitution “belongs” and whether it matters for the interpretive approach one adopts in relation to the Constitution.

First, a bit of background about the book and its subject. Matthews paints a picture of Madison as a “quintessential liberal,” who continues to, today, impact the way Americans view their government. Madison, who was a chief architect of the Constitution’s structural provisions and the Bill of Rights, is often placed on a lower rung than Thomas Jefferson in the hierarchy of American founders. And yet, for Matthews, it is Madison who has come to typify modern American government and life. This reality lies, for Matthews, in a quintessential difference in Madisonian and Jeffersonian politics. Matthews paints Madison, at heart, as a Hobbesian; or perhaps a Malthus. Either way, Madison does not view political life as a teleological good as the ancients did. Rather, political life is nasty, brutish, and short; and humanity leans inexorably towards degeneration. Madison is a political skeptic. To him, left to their own devices, humans will inevitably turn on one another, no matter how good or virtuous they might be. Hence, democracy had to be tempered because “had every Athenian Citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob (see The Federalist Papers, No. 55). For Matthews, “[f]rom Madison’s view of the individual, democracy was a fool’s illusion; in the long run, little could be done, beyond playing for time, to forestall the decline or to improve the human condition” [51] because “passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason” (The Federalist Papers, No.50).

Madison’s prescription for this natural state of affairs was republican constitutionalism. If the human condition could not be improved, and if virtue could not be instilled, the least one could do is preserve a peaceful status quo. For Hobbes, the method to do this was the Leviathan. But for Madison, the separation of powers was the preferred prescription. By making “ambition counteract ambition” through the mutual jealousy of the branches of government, the worst vices of humanity could be tempered. And, by making a republic that extended over a large geographic area rather than a classic Athenian demos, the risk of factionalism decreased.

On the other hand, Jefferson’s political philosophy reveals a different sort of view of the human condition and political organization. For Jefferson, politics is a constitutive act of citizenship, in which the people constantly reinvent their laws to suit their circumstances. Hence Jefferson’s frequently-cited admonition that “[t]he tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” And Jefferson operationalized this reality: he believed that the Constitution and the laws should renew every generation, so that the dead do not bind the living in their constant fulfillment of democratic, civic republicanism. Jefferson obviously viewed humans as far less fallible than Madison did.

Matthews views the matter differently than Madison, adopting a Jeffersonian position on the matter. For Matthews, “Madison’s liberal dream has, as he knew it would, turned into a nightmare for an increasing number of marginalized Americans” [279]. And this rings somewhat true: even more so than in 1995, the ability of people to connect over the Internet and to peddle in fake news and “deep fakes” has made it much easier to bypass republic protections and create mob rule.

This political theorizing seems far off from the world of Canadian law, and so how does any of it apply? As I noted above, I think there are real reasons why Madison’s thinking, Jefferson’s philosophy, and Matthews’ book all have something to say about contemporary debates in our own institutions. Take first the question of judicial deference to legislatures. In Canada, courts will defer to legislatures on constitutional questions under the Oakes test. If one adopts the Madisonian position, why is there any reason to defer to legislators? The question rings powerfully in the context of Canadian law, where there is a more closely-tied legislature and executive, and where the executive is responsible to the legislature. In such a case, there are no separation of powers protections to prevent the worst human vices. Couldn’t the legislature or executive simply channel mob rule?

There is some evidence of this, as co-blogger Leonid Sirota and I wrote about here in reference to the SNC-Lavalin affair. The example shows that humans—of which politicians are a special class—will not act properly when the incentives aren’t right. The lure of winning an election and doing whatever it takes to do so might be too great a Madisonian evil. After all, it was Justin Trudeau’s justification in the SNC-Lavalin affair that “jobs” were the driving force behind his attempted interference in the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. This leaves us wondering whether there is any reason for courts to defer to legislatures controlled by calculating executives.

But one must take the situation as it is. In this sense, Hart and Sacks and the legal process school had something right: institutional competency matters. And while legislatures are apt to turn into ineffectual mobs (look at the US Congress and the issue of gun control), or to focus on their own electoral futures, we are talking here about deference to legislatures on constitutional questions. Constitutional questions are more questions of policy-resolution than legal interpretation in the modern day. Of course, this is not normatively desirable or necessary. But it is the state of the world. And if that is the case, legislatures should have a legitimate say—if not a final one, because that responsibility is the judiciary’s—in how issues of policy are resolved. This says nothing of the fact that the people are the ultimate control on government, and for that reason, are always the best control on legislatures appealing to the worst of us.

Finally, I want to say a note about Jefferson’s living constitutionalism. Madison, I think, provides a response that is still apt today:

Would not a Government so often revised become too mutable to retain those prejudices in its favour which antiquity inspires, and which are perhaps a salutary aid to the most rational Government in the most enlightened age?

Madison advances a valid epistemological reason for refusing to throw away the past, one I find convincing instinctively. But there is an additional reason why the principle of constitutionalism means that we cannot escape the past. As Hayek notes, the distinctive American contribution to the Rule of Law was the addition of the principle of constitutionalism, explained by Madison as the idea that the Constitution is supreme over ordinary law; that it is “fundamental.” The choice to make supreme certain elements of law is an intentional one, taken by a people after the expense of extensive political capital and energy. It is a sacred act. When it comes to bills of rights, the choice to make certain rights and freedoms beyond the reach of ordinary legislation is a deliberate choice to remove from the sphere of political debate those rights and freedoms. That, too, is a sacred act. The reason why the Constitution cannot be automatically renewed every generation—short of the amending procedure—is that to do so would disrespect the original choice to remove certain, important rights from the sphere of debate. This is an important formal act that should be presumptively respected because it represents the democratic choice of the people at a select time. That choice, absent the amending procedure, should not be abridged by an extralegal “renewal” of the Constitution; especially by courts. This, of course, is slightly different than saying that the people made the choices they did for good reasons.

I could write more, but this post is long enough. It is enough to say that Madison’s politics do view humans as inherently flawed, and these flaws reverberate through all of our institutions. It is fundamentally a question, though, of asking with respect to a particular legal question who is worse. Sometimes courts are best suited to deal with issues, but other times they are decidedly not.