We have not yet seen what man can make of man.
When Barack Obama won the presidential election in November 2008, observers credited the extraordinary effectiveness of his grassroots organizing with helping him to achieve his historic victory. But Obama had another unacknowledged ally on his side: behavioral science. A team of behavioral scientists, including at least one Nobel laureate, advised the campaign on everything from honing his message to fundraising techniques to voter-turnout tactics.
After the election, Obama appointed several members of this behavioral brain trust to prominent positions in his administration, most notably the law professor Cass Sunstein as the “regulation czar” at the Office of Management and Budget. In areas such as health care, environmental regulation, and the economy, Obama is relying on experts like Sunstein to launch one of the most ambitious behaviorist-style policy projects in American political history. Drawing on the recent findings of behavioral economics, they hope to encourage us to conserve energy at home by using “smart meters,” save better for retirement by automatically enrolling us in the company 401(k) plan, and make smarter choices about mortgages and credit cards, among other things. An admiring New York Times Magazine profile of Sunstein by Benjamin Wallace-Wells noted that the regulation czar and his fellow behaviorists envision a world where “government regulations can operate at the level of philosophy.” As one Indiana state senator told the Economist, marveling at the detailed requirements for spending included in the federal economic stimulus package, “They’re going to control your behavior with specifications and regulations.”
About the Author
Christine Rosen is senior editor of the New Atlantis. This essay appears, in somewhat different form, in New Threats to Freedom, a collection of essays edited by Adam Bellow and just published by the Templeton Press.