Her gjengis i sin helhet takketalen som årets Holbergprisvinner, den amerikanske jussprofessoren Cass Sunstein, holdt i Bergen torsdag 6. juni.
Your Royal Highness Crown Prince Haakon, Minister, Mayor, Representatives of the Holberg Committee, many esteemed guests, new friends and absent friends:
I am more honored than I can say to receive the Holberg Prize. Of course, and I really want to put this in bold letters, the Prize is shared with terrific coauthors, colleagues, teachers, students, friends, and family. It is both an honor and a joy to pay tribute to them right now.
I begin with a scene from a movie from 2005, called Walk the Line, about the great American country singer, Johnny Cash.
In the scene, Johnny Cash is a young man, trying to make a start in the music business. He is lucky enough to get an audition with the celebrated Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis Presley.
Cash begins by singing a song about how devoted he is to God, and how much peace he has within, and how he wants to shout it, and how all this is real. Philips is not impressed. He cuts him off. He tells him: «I don’t believe you».
He adds: «We’ve already heard that song a hundred times. Just like that».
Johnny Cash is confused and defensive and a little angry. He thinks it’s unfair. He objects that Phillips did not let him finish – in the jargon of the music business: «Well, you didn’t let us bring it home».
Here is Phillips’s response: «Bring it home? All right, let’s bring it home. If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had one time to sing one song. One song that people would remember you by before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up. You tellin’ me that’s the song you’d sing? That same song we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re gonna shout it? Or would you sing somethin’ different. Somethin’ real. Somethin’ you felt… .»
Cash pauses and answers: «I got a couple of songs I wrote in the Air Force. You got anything against the Air Force?»
Sam Phillips responds, «No».
Cash shoots back, «Well, I do».
He then sings a song about longing and rage. The song is about freedom, and even more, it is an expression of freedom. It’s a rebel’s song.
Cash projects a sense of confidence – along with wonder, I think, in his capacity to sing something real, something of his own, something that he actually felt. His career is launched.
When I started teaching at the University of Chicago in the 1980s, three songs were on the radio all day.
The first song claimed that the political process is a war among self-interested groups, who seek to obtain benefits or to impose burdens. In short, democracy is interest-group struggle. Not much of a melody to that one.
The second song claimed that the entire purpose of a constitutional order is to protect private rights – property, liberty – against the government. The second song overlapped with the first. If the democratic process is just a war among interest groups, rights of property and liberty need a lot of help.
The third song claimed that human beings are rational, self-interested profit maximizers — or at the very least, that they make rational choices about how to achieve their ends. If people discriminate on the basis of sex, if they smoke a great deal, if they spend their money foolishly, if they end up poor or sick or miserable – well, they are rational, and that is what they want to do. Who are we to object?
I did not like those songs. I did not believe them. They seemed to me lifeless, deadening, a form of posturing – like a man flexing his muscles to show people how strong he is. They also felt like an orthodoxy.
Of course, those who sang the songs were extremely impressive – precise, clear-headed, and brilliant. They won plenty of prizes. But I had something against my own Air Force.
At times – and for me it is very rare – an idea comes to mind, and I feel a tingle along the back of the neck. It is like a tickle, but it is a tingle. It is a physical feeling. The tingle has surprise in it – a kind of «whoa»— and something stronger than delight.
We have an expression in English: «A tiger by the tail». The tingle is like having a tiger by the tail. I can’t always know, of course, whether the tingle signals an idea of any value or truth.
But here’s a confession for you. Sometimes you get to know.
The first time I had that feeling, I think, was around 1983, when I was working on constitutional law. This was mostly US constitutional law, but it was global constitutional law. Investigating the details of many legal doctrines – equality, liberty, property, religion, freedom of speech: I saw a pattern. There was a single foundation for each and every one of them: Whenever burdens are to be imposed, or benefits to be given, it must be for some public-regarding reason. Always. In other words, government must offer a justification for hurting or helping people. So much for democracy as interest-group struggle.
That idea, a requirement for a reasoned justification for helping or hurting people, seemed to me deeply democratic, connected with principles of dignity and equality, and freedom too. It also seemed to be connected with the deepest foundations of the world’s great constitutional orders. It is at the heart of the idea of deliberative democracy – a system of government that combines accountability with an insistence on reason-giving. In deliberative democracies, what matters is not power but what an earlier Holberg laureate, Jürgen Habermas, calls «the forceless force of the better argument». No fake news there.
My emphasis on deliberative democracy, and the ban on purely interest group-driven results or power-driven results, encountered a lot of resistance from my Chicago friends and colleagues. Most of them hated it. The discussions were generally not a lot of fun. But there was that tingle.
In the late 1980s, I began to read the early work in what is now called «behavioral science». Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and Richard Thaler, all social scientists, had something to say about human beings. Contrary to one of Chicago’s favorite songs, we are less than fully rational, that’s not the best news, but it’s true. Here is some better news: We are not so self-interested. Sometimes we are kind – and we sacrifice our economic self-interest to show kindness and to punish unkindness. Often, we misperceive risks. Sometimes we emphasize today and tomorrow, and not so much next year or next decade. For each of us, that can create problems.
Here’s a secret: A lot of findings in behavioral science are not only intriguing but also at least a little bit funny. For example, the vast majority of people think that they are better than the average driver – and almost everyone on the planet thinks that their sense of humor is better than average. A recent finding of my own, just from a few weeks ago: People would pay almost nothing to be able to use Facebook – but they would demand a lot of money to give up the right to use Facebook. That doesn’t make any sense, but that’s what the data shows. Behavioral scientists have something in common with poets and novelists: They describe human foibles with great specificity, alongside warmth and affection.
There are plenty of tingles here. For decades, behavioral science did not have much to say about law or policy. But what if we try to improve both of these with an accurate sense of what humananity is really like? We can rethink, and we are rethinking, a lot of our practices. We can make people safer and more free. We are able to dent poverty, sexism, racism, and climate change. We can start to combat violent extremism. Most powerfully of all, we can reduce suffering and save lives – and have some fun in the process.
My most recent tingle came just last year, when I moved to Concord, Massachusetts, which is where the American Revolution began. More specifically, I moved to a house, built in 1763, that helped start the Revolution. The house held munitions on April 19, 1775, and on that very day, British military forces came to Concord to remove those munitions from several homes. That’s when the fighting began.
Constitutional law is my primary field, but I had never studied the American Revolution before. What I learned set me on fire, more or less. I learned that in the early decades of the eighteenth century, Americans lived in a traditional society, in which people were seeing themselves as systematically lower than others and lacking human dignity.
A great American historian, Gordon Wood, writes that «common people» were «made to recognize and feel their subordination» so that those «in lowly stations», not having a sense of dignity, developed what was called a «down look», and knew their place. And they seldom expressed any burning desire to change places with their betters.
In this account, we can’t understand «the distinctiveness of that premodern world until we appreciate the extent to which many ordinary people still accepted their own lowliness». That’s an indignity which was deeply internalized.
Over the next twenty years, the world was turned upside down. This was a revolution of self-understanding much more than politics. It was the rise of widespread sense of dignity that obliterated the pre-modern world.
One writer (John Adams) wrote that the idea of servility was never so totally eradicated from so many minds in so short a time. David Ramsay, one of the nation’s first historians, captured by the British during the Revolution, marveled that all of a sudden, citizens had sovereignty.
Thomas Paine, the era’s most animated and passionate theorists of dignity, wrote: “Our style and manner of thinking have undergone a revolution, more extraordinary than the political revolution of the country. We see with other eyes; we hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts than those we formerly used». Recall the internalized feeling of indignity. «We can look back on our own prejudices, as if they had been the prejudices of other people. We now see and know they were prejudices and nothing else; and, relieved from their shackles, enjoy a freedom of mind, we had not felt before.»
The thinking behind the Revolution placed a bright spotlight on the aspirations, the needs, the dignity, and the agency of ordinary people. Hierarchies were bound to disintegrate – through the simple assertion, immortalized in the nation’s Declaration of Independence and reverberating throughout the world, that all human beings are created equal. That assertion helped pave the way for social movements of all kinds, including the movements for equality on the basis of race and sex.
Recall Sam Phillips’ words to the young Johnny Cash: «If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had one time to sing one song. What would you sing? Somethin’ real. Somethin’ you felt».
Every one of us is mortal. All of us are fragile. But every one of us is also blessed with something: The opportunity to sing.
In 2017, before I felt the most recent tingle, I was actually hit by a car, while walking on the street at night in Concord. I was hit hard. I was found lying out there in a gutter, unconscious. I was lucky: I wasn’t dying, or close to it. But it wasn’t good, and it wasn’t exactly fun.
The song of human equality is something real. It’s a privilege to sing it.
Opptak av seremonien og talen kan sees her.