Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Idea of Libertarian Paternalism

I was reading an excellent article about the postmodern idea of fluid identities ("Plural Sense of Selves") in The Atlantic by Paul Bloom, and in it I found an especially interesting term.

Bloom introduced the idea of "libertarian paternalism," which he defined as "a movement to engineer situations so that people retain their choices (the libertarian part), but in such a way that these choices are biased to favor people's better selves (the paternalism part)."  

Bloom illustrated this concept by proposing that individuals be automatically enrolled in retirement plans with the option to opt out (rather than the other way around which may leave indecisive or procrastinators without retirement funds).  By doing so policies can support default decisions that speak to the "better" and "more ideal" sense of self.

Another example of this had to do with organ donors and the idea that public policy and law might actually adapt to take into account this idea of libertarian paternalism.  Thaler and Sunstein, who both act as political advisers to Barack Obama, propose that this could take form, for example, when it comes to organ donors.  Public surveys show that most people approve of being donors, yet of this percentage that claims to support donating their organs, very few actually follow through with becoming donors on their driver's license.  Assuming that this isn't about people publicly portraying something they don't believe in, the way we write policy could change this significant gap for the better of our society.  If people had to opt out of the idea, Thaler and Sunstein argue, we would have a much larger percentage of donors and therefore more medical opportunities.

To me this is fascinating.  I won't provide too much commentary, but this seems to say so much about our society, not to mention how important wording is.  Frame something one way and people will react with a certain vehemence.  Manipulate the same concept though, and you might find yourself with a pool of people who will take what you've written perfectly for granted (or simply not offensive enough to do anything about it).

I'm curious as to what this says about the ways that we process information and accept certain things as is simply because there are "more important" battles to fight.  


In the spirit of music for thought, or thinking for music, today's recommendation is Blind Pilot, a band that sounds like the way it might feel if David Gray and Jack Johnson crashed into each other in a warm, acoustic coffee shop.  

My favorite song off of his most recent album Three Rounds and a Sound is "One Red Thread" but everything from Blind Pilot is worth listening until you can feel the Oregon band's guitar strings cutting into your own fingers and flowing through you like the blood that is essential to life.

Blind Pilot - "One Red Thread"