I am grateful that "anonymous" brought up the subject of libertarianism and Obama. I had no idea there was so much out there to peruse. Each article allows me to feel even better about my choice of Barack Obama. What I see is this. The ideal is that each one of us is responsible for our own lives, but one thing I know well is that I don't like to walk down the street and see homeless people. It tears my guts out. Okay, my heart bleeds. I am willing to pay taxes to ensure these people have choice. In Marin, many years ago, we opened up a place for homeless people to stay. Many of them preferred the streets. They didn't like the rules in the shelter. They wanted to drink. That, too, is fine with me, if it is their choice, and we have given them options. To me, that is what it says about Barack here. The country benefits when people are able to save for retirement. Let's help them out. We all know that if we put the money away, we don't seem to miss it. If we don't, it is gone. The same is true with time. Some orchestration offers results. A free-float may not. Is it okay to give people a little poke? We believe in education. Why not this? Nobody makes it alone anymore, if they ever did. We are too tied.
Medical treatment is too expensive for people to handle on their own. Maybe in the Middle Ages, when it was suggested that clean water was a good idea, some people said no way are you going to tell me to wash my hands. I think today most of us are willing to put our hands under the faucets of our clean water supply and be grateful people came together so it could be there.
Anyway, what I am seeing is that Barack Obama is even more qualified and well-advised than I realized. Decide for yourself. After all, we Democrats believe in choice.
Monday, April 7, 2008 10:31 PDT
The most remarkable thing about Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's Los Angeles Times Op-Ed on April 2 was their treatment of the title for their "new movement," libertarian paternalism, with such affection. (Thanks to Mark Thoma for the tip.)
Put away your jumbo shrimp -- that's one whopper of an oxymoron the economist and the law professor at the University of Chicago have dreamed up. Libertarians despise paternalism! That whole nanny-state thing? They are so not down with it. In libertopia, people get to make their own free choices, as long as they don't hurt anyone else, or infringe upon their property rights. Big Daddy can take a hike.
But some libertarians also like to dabble in contrarianism (how else do we explain Ron Paul?), so perhaps that gives us a clue. Thaler and Sunstein describe a style of government in which citizens are free to choose -- how they invest their money, how they give away their money -- but the options among which they can select from are structured so as to steer them in the socially correct direction. Designing those options, they write, is a process known as "choice architecture." Government, they argue, needs to do a better job picking choices.
We welcome you to our new movement: libertarian paternalism. We are keenly aware that both those words are weighted down by stereotypes from popular culture and politics. Why combine two often reviled and seemingly contradictory concepts? The reason is that if the terms are properly understood, both concepts reflect common sense. They are far more attractive together than alone -- and taken together, they point the way to a whole new approach to the role of government.
The libertarian aspect of the approach lies in the straightforward insistence that, in general, people should be free to do what they like. They should be permitted to opt out of arrangements they dislike, and even make a mess of their lives if they want to. The paternalistic aspect acknowledges that it is legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people's behavior in order to make their lives longer, healthier and better.
By now readers are probably wondering how Barack Obama fits into all this. Easy -- Obama's chief economic adviser, Austan Goolsbee, is a paradigmatic choice architect. Thaler exerts considerable influence on Goolsbee's views. In Noam Scheiber's illuminating look at Obama's advisers in the New Republic, the relationship is described as follows:
As it happens, Thaler is revered by the leading wonks on Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Though he has no formal role, Thaler presides as a kind of in-house intellectual guru, consulting regularly with Obama's top economic adviser, a fellow University of Chicago professor named Austan Goolsbee. "My main role has been to harass Austan, who has an office down the hall from mine, " Thaler recently told me. "I give him as much grief as possible." You can find subtle evidence of this influence across numerous Obama proposals. For example, one key behavioral finding is that people often fail to set aside money for retirement even when their employers offer generous 401(k) plans. If, on the other hand, you automatically enroll workers in 401(k)s but allow them to opt out, most stick with it. Obama's savings plan exploits this so-called "status quo" bias.
At Economist's View, Thoma says he is bothered by the implications of libertarian paternalism -- "the subtle manipulation to get me to do things someone else thinks I should be doing." Which raises a great existential dilemma: Is it better to be told to do something directly, or to be given the illusion that you are the master of your destiny?