The Public Option: How to Expand Freedom, Increase Opportunity, and Promote Equality

Anne L. Alstott and Ganesh Sitaraman (Harvard University Press)
Cover of the book titled "The Public Option."

Anne L. Alstott, the Jacquin D. Bierman Professor at Yale Law School, and Ganesh Sitaraman, Chancellor Faculty Fellow, professor of law, and director of the Program in Law and Government at Vanderbilt Law School

(Harvard University Press)

A solution to inequalities in society, the authors contend, 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, the authors contend. 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 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, the authors write, a low-cost, high-quality public option for child care. Or an extension of the 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 ways to meet pressing public needs while spurring healthy competition. More effective than vouchers or tax credits, public options could offer fairer choices and greater security, Sitaraman and Alstott believe.

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