The Holberg Prize is awarded annually to a scholar who has made outstanding contributions to research in the arts and humanities, social science, law or theology, either in one of these fields or through interdisciplinary work.
In 2018, the Holberg Prize was awarded to Harvard University Professor Cass Sunstein, who is an amazing source of inspiration. I had a great privilege to take Prof. Sunstein’s classes at HLS and have been learning a great deal from him since then. It appears to me that that Holberg Prize was awarded to Prof. Sunsteins work which he laid in two of his recent books: Nudge and Valuing Life: Humanizing the Regulatory State.
During the Holber Prize award ceremony, President Obama sent a greeting message to his previous advisor and teammate. President Obama appointed Prof. Sunstein to lead Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA)— an agency which played a key role in applying theories of Nudging in public regulation.
President’s message nicely summarizes Prof. Sunstein’s achievements and accomplishments. Here it goes:
Members, of the Royal Family, Representatives of the Norwegian Government, distinguished guests, thank you for honoring my dear friend Cass Sunstein with the Holberg Prize and for offering me this opportunity to congratulate him.
I have known Cass since we were both professors at the University of Chicago where he was renowned for his staggering body of academic work and for the staggering mess in his office. :) It is true, his was the most chaotic office on campus by a comfortable margin. When he first started courting [his current wife] Samantha, I had to warn her about the fact that he was not very neat.
But to be fair, who has time to be organized when you have got so much going on in your head? A reporter once described Cass’ cerebral complexity in this way: “when other academics talk about his mind, they do so in the way people talk about the ballet. There is something precious that ought to be preserved.”
How true that is of someone who has influenced the way we think about our constitution and the rule of law, risk and financial markets, health and climate change, free speech and democracy. In fact, Case may have covered all that ground in just one of his nearly fifty books. I am sure, much has been said already about the prolific nature of his work, from his hundreds of scholarly papers, to his purge of the most cited legal scholar of the world.
Less noted, as important a metric, I think, is the staggering breath of collaborators he has brought along on his intellectual journey. The shared number of his partnerships actually gave rise to “six degrees of Cass Sunstein” making him the Kevin Bacon of legal scholarship with academics clambering to shrink their Sunstein number to one.
What a testament it is to Cass’s joyful inclusive spirit, to his capacity to make his scholarly research not stodgy, but accessible, not staid, but enjoyable.
I have never had the privilege to co-author a paper with Cass, but I did want to do more work with him. So once I was elected the President of the United States, I tried to pry him every time and put his propositions in to practice at the White House.
In the US, when some ambitious academic has an inkling that he will be offered some high position in the government someday, they tend to play a little safe with the research. But not Cass. He has never censored himself for political reasons. He has always been fearless in the pursuit what is true. How do we polarize ourselves? How should we change the calculus of climate change? That animal have rights. What is the proper hierarchy of the Star Warms films? (That last one really did bring out the critics!) :)
But in Cass I saw someone who viewed our Constitution as I do: A living and breathing document. Somebody who viewed our democracy — our precious system of self-government — as the way in which each new generation strives to push ourselves closer to those lofty ideals. I saw Cass as someone who had faith not in what government could do, but what we as the stewards of self-government can do together. We share the desire to bring the government into the 21st century, to make it more relevant to the way we live our lives today. Neither of us believed in regulation for regulation’s sake, or for pure efficiency sake, but as modest way to protect people’s choices, promote better lives and to improve our society. What if we could encourage people to live healthier or save for retirement without regulation that they do so?
And so together we introduced for the first time the concept of Dignity into cold-hearted cross-benefit analysis. What if we considered more than the cost of insuring accessibility to public spaces, but introduced a variable that measures someone’s ability to turn the wheelchair in the bathroom stall?
I trusted Cass to know my sense on what the right balance was on important issues. And he delivered with policies that saved significant money and untold lives, policies that delivered benefits far surpassing both the costs and benefits secured by other administrations. Cass even secured praise from my political critics — and that is no small feat here in Washington. It speaks to the way Cass treats others: with decency, respect, curiosity, and an open mind. He is someone who is always open to be proven being wrong as long as it is well argued, as long the other person is also listening.
I’ve spoken long enough that Cass has already published another book by now. So I close by saying this: Cass, what a well-deserved honor this is! What a tribute to an entire body of work and the thread that runs through it: A commitment to the principles of liberty, equality, dignity, and how we might constrain ourselves while promoting and protecting those principles. A commitment to making ourselves bit by bit better than we are. It is an honor to call you a friend, not only because you are a towering intellect, but more importantly, because you are a good man. Congratulations to you, and to Samantha, and your children, who I know are bursting with pride for you. Love you.