Arguments about domestic policy have been stuck in the 20th century - between FDR's social welfare state and Reagan's social Darwinism. You've got nanny-state liberals on one hand who want to use government to penalize people for making bad decisions, such as smoking cigarettes and buying guns, and nanny-state conservatives who want to impose their religious values on individual choices about sex and reproduction.

Arguments about domestic policy have been stuck in the 20th century - between FDR’s social welfare state and Reagan’s social Darwinism.

You’ve got nanny-state liberals on one hand who want to use government to penalize people for making bad decisions, such as smoking cigarettes and buying guns, and nanny-state conservatives who want to impose their religious values on individual choices about sex and reproduction. Is there another way?

Cass Sunstein and Ben Thaler say there is. In “Nudge,” the two University of Chicago professors suggest an approach to public policy that emphasizes simplicity, user-friendliness and “choice architecture” that creates incentives to socially beneficial behavior instead of mandates.

George W. Bush’s “ownership society” - his second-term vision that never got off the ground - imagines a nation of investors sitting home with their spreadsheets tweaking their individual Social Security portfolios. But in reality, most people don’t even opt into their 401(k) plans. Sunstein and Thaler propose automatically enrolling new employees in a 401(k), but giving them the freedom to opt out.

Sunstein and Thaler call it “libertarian paternalism,” which conservative columnist George Will describes as a “choice architecture that is easy and inexpensive to avoid and that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing an individual’s economic incentives.”

Sunstein is a longtime friend and law school colleague of Barack Obama, said to be on Obama’s short list for the Supreme Court. There are elements of “Nudge”-style thinking in Obama’s positions - his opposition to a health insurance mandate, for one.

“Dare we hope Barack Obama shares the `libertarian paternalism’ of two of his former University of Chicago colleagues?” Will asks. If so, it would be a welcome step away from government nannies of all political stripes.