A solution to inequalities wherever we look—in health care, secure retirement, education—is as close as the public library. Or the post office, community pool, or local elementary school. Public options—reasonably priced government-provided services that coexist with private options—are all around us, ready to increase opportunity, expand freedom, and reawaken civic engagement if we will only let them.
Whenever you go to your local public library, send mail via the post office, or visit Yosemite, you are taking advantage of a longstanding American tradition: the public option. Some of the most useful and beloved institutions in American life are public options—yet they are seldom celebrated as such. These government-supported opportunities coexist peaceably alongside private options, ensuring equal access and expanding opportunity for all.
Ganesh Sitaraman and Anne Alstott challenge decades of received wisdom about the proper role of government and consider the vast improvements that could come from the expansion of public options. Far from illustrating the impossibility of effective government services, as their critics claim, public options hold the potential to transform American civic life, offering a wealth of solutions to seemingly intractable problems, from housing shortages to the escalating cost of health care.
Imagine a low-cost, high-quality public option for child care. Or an extension of the excellent Thrift Savings Plan for federal employees to all Americans. Or every person having access to an account at the Federal Reserve Bank, with no fees and no minimums. From broadband internet to higher education, The Public Option reveals smart new ways to meet pressing public needs while spurring healthy competition. More effective than vouchers or tax credits, public options could offer us all fairer choices and greater security.
Ganesh Sitaraman is Chancellor Faculty Fellow, Professor of Law, and Director of the Program in Law and Government at Vanderbilt Law School. He is a columnist for Guardian US and has been a longtime advisor to Senator Elizabeth Warren, serving as her policy director and senior counsel. He is the author of The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic, a New York Times Notable Book.
Anne L. Alstott is the Jacquin D. Bierman Professor at Yale Law School and author of A New Deal for Old Age, among other books. She has won her school’s top teaching award five times in her twenty-six-year career. She has written or cowritten pieces for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, and Slate, and has appeared on the public radio programs Marketplace and On Point.