There’s a good piece over at TNR discussing Obama’s move to embrace whats termed ‘Behavioral Economics’, rather than the more traditional models as a way to seek out his agenda. And whilst a good read of a growing field, this paragraph really stood out:
Barack Obama has the type of mind–orderly, analytical, well-read–that takes naturally to the study of ideas. But he’s always been uncomfortable describing himself in ideological terms. Is he a liberal? During the campaign, Obama would mock those who applied the label to him: “There’s nothing liberal about wanting to reduce money in politics,” he’d say. “There’s nothing liberal about wanting to make sure [our soldiers] are treated properly when they come home.”…
Rather than force markets to conform to his wishes, he shapes their calculus so they conclude (on their own) that their interests coincide with his wishes… In the mid-’70s, Charles Schultze, Jimmy Carter’s top White House economic adviser, sketched out a version of the conceit in a book called The Public Use of Private Interest. Schultze favored “harnessing the ‘base’ motive of material self-interest to promote the common good”–say, by taxing rather than outlawing harmful activities. A generation later, the behavioral theorists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, both informal advisers to the Obama campaign, hatched a descendant of this approach. In their own book, Thaler and Sunstein suggested that the government inculcate desirable habits like saving and philanthropy through a series of gentle “nudges.”
(Sunstein is now head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under Obama)
But whats striking in this, is that this idea of harnessing the self-interest of the individual towards the common weal is precisely what makes a Liberal. Along with beliefs in freedom and the sanctity and primacy of the individual, Liberalism is distinct as a political theory for its inclusion of Self-Interest as the basic nature of humanity, and a force to be utilised for what public benefit that could be found, rather than turned inward or repressed. Unlike Conservatives and Social Democrats who see ills and flaws in human nature that need to be educated out and controlled by prohibition, Liberals seek to leave human nature, but seek outlets for it to flow in positive directions. This is why liberalism has always been the political ideology primarily tied to the market. Markets work to filter our private self-interest and desire for domination, into a form of profitable exchange that is peaceful, and prosperous. The more self-interested we are, almost the better in our engagement with the market (such as drive for competition that seeks out new markets, reduces prices, invents new products or services and drives out inefficiencies or failing businesses).
For me, it is this acceptance of human nature as neither good nor evil, but as a essentially constant that ought to be funneled for public and private good, that makes it at once the most pragmatic and sensible of political theories and worthy of being called by such a name. It does not seek to harness humanity towards some great goal, but merely identify common tools for interaction, instituted and maintained through good governance that enable the great and glorious seething mass of humanity, with all its contradictions, foibles, and beauty to make good on its promises to protect the poor, give freedom and dignity to the individual, and protect the society at large from the inevitable barbarians at the gates.
Obama doesn’t seem to like the word, his training is after all law not politics or philosophy, but in his endorsement of such schools of thought he is, however unconsciously more true to the ideal of a liberal than perhaps any number of his left wing colleagues who gather under such a banner. Human nature can’t always be shaped for positive purposes, but we have many benefits to be gained, many social ills spared, and many laws and restrictions that could be removed if we were to once more and forthrightly make such a principle at the heart of our understanding of how to govern humanity: Like a great carpenter, by going with the grain of humanity, not roughly against its form, no matter how great our final visions may be.