The Nobel Peace Prize and the Blind Chipmunk Principle

Barack Obama shouldn’t give away the Nobel Peace Prize money. It’s not his money; it’s ours.

Even a blind chipmunk finds an acorn every once in a while, just by chance.

Similarly, the blind Obama-hatred of some of the usual wingnut suspects seems to have turned up a genuine issue.

I was an early member of the chorus urging the President to give the Nobel Prize money to charity, as he reportedly intends to do.  But on reflection that’s not the right answer. For the President to give the money away, to no matter how worthy a cause, would suggest that it’s rightfully his money to dispose of.    But it’s not.  He was given the prize in his role as President; as someone pointed out, the prize was really to the American voters (or 53% of them, anyway) for electing him.

The legal principle that no one may supplement a Federal salary has a solid basis in policy; we don’t want public servants to shape their public actions with anything in mind save the public good.

Imagine that the pesticide manufacturers instituted a Regulator of the Year Award, to be given to the public official who had done the most to advance the cause of efficient environmental management.  On the surface, that’s a good cause; surely no one favors inefficient environmental management.  But it’s not hard to guess that in mind of whatever panel the pesticide makers chose to make the award, “efficient” would turn out to mean “lax.”

Surely, no official should be allowed to accept such an award, for fear that every official might think about shading his decisions in industry’s favor in hopes of winning the prize.   But how is the Peace Prize different?  No doubt one of the goals of its establishment was to encourage actions that might earn an award.

If that’s the problem, giving the money away is not a complete solution.  The right to give away a large chunk of money is itself valuable; at minimum, it earns gratitude from the recipients. When a U.S. Attorney waives the prosecution of a corporation on condition that the corporation make a donation to the U.S. Attorney’s alma mater, which in turn gives the U.S. Attorney a medal, I claim that the U.S. Attorney has either taken a bribe or committed extortion, depending on who made the suggestion in the first place.   But that’s not true if having the money go to a charity is sufficient to take the curse off.

I’m not suggesting that either the committee that awards the Peace Prize or the President has committed or will commit any comparable impropriety; there’s no hint of an explicit quid pro quo.   But the principle that says that officials have to be satisfied with their salaries and can’t collect from outside sources for official actions applies equally to the two cases.

Therefore Barack Obama should accept the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the nation and turn the funds over to the Treasury.  He can, at the same time, ask the Congress to appropriate an equal sum to some good cause or causes, such as education for the children of servicemembers killed or wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But he shouldn’t give the money away, because it wasn’t his in the first place.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

6 thoughts on “The Nobel Peace Prize and the Blind Chipmunk Principle”

  1. Thank you for your insight. I am arguing the point that the Nobel Prize was awarded to the American people to everyone who wants to take on the issue. Your perspective on the money is in line with that observation. Yes, let us encourage the President to deposit that money into the Treasury to become part of the general fund. I wholeheartedly support this idea.

  2. While your argument makes sense in general (as prizes go) the Nobel Peace Prize is a unique award. It is generally recognized as the highest honor for humanitarian work. The receipiants usually reinvest the prize money in their humanitarian works or that of those they support. It seems in that sense to be more of a trusteeship. The Nobel commitee is saying, 'we have faith in your judgement so take this hundred talents and do good works good and faithful servent.' To hand that off to congress (who after all have plenty of money to do good works with) would be to thwart the trust of the commitee. If Obama was going to do that he should just hand the money back and ask them to decide what good works they wish to support.

    I don't think anyone sets their sights on winning a Nobel Peace Prize. The person who would do that would not be likely to receive the award.

  3. In my view the Prize is absolutely not an award to 'the American people'. It recognizes the decisions of the President personally in exercising his role. It went to him. That said, I agree with the principle that a public servant, whether the top one or one anywhere else in the hierarchy, should not receive extra money from outside for doing his or her job. The President recognizes the principle of no such enrichment, which is why he has proposed to give the money away. I think Mark has got it right, though – it should go to the common funds of the country, i.e. Treasury.

    That would not be giving it to 'Congress', as if that body had done anything to deserve it. However, Congress gets to express the desires of the people about what causes are worthy, so it would be legitimate for Congress to spend the Nobel funds in a particular way, or just leave them in the common fund, on which the demand currently exceeds supply even more than it usually does. Congress is a 'better' place in principle for that decision to be made than the President, though I suspect that I would personally be more inclined to agree with his allocation than with that of Congress.

  4. That WaPo OpEd was awful and stupid (and its law professor author got the tax law wrong), but you're right that Obama shouldn't favor any specific charity, nor earn their gratitude with Nobel money.

  5. Trivial non-lawyer question: The NPP's plainly at least a present, but R&P say it also meets the (Webster) definition of an emolument (arises from an office). Is the idea that it arises from the fact that Obama is President (which goes to the committee’s intent), or that acceptance of it by itself amounts to the occupation of an office? I'm not making any argument; I just don't know.

  6. Even the course of action you propose ends up advantaging somebody as a result of the president's actions. It's also inconsistent with decades (centuries?) of practice in such things. Think about all the book royalties, speech fees and so forth that presidents and their immediate families have given to charity over the years. All of that is money that came in because of their incumbency, and much of it fell into their laps in much the way the the Nobel did to Obama.

    So I think in some sense arguing for special treatment — don't even give it to charity — for this Nobel money partakes of the Obama-illegitimacy frame. (Hmm, do we have any record of what Kissinger did with his?)

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