One of my big takeaways as a public policy student at the University of Nevada was that public policy is not detached from our values. We like to think that elected officials and public administration officials are able to look at the world rationally and make judgments based purely on empirical facts, but this is not the case. Our values seep into all of our judgments and influence what we find as good or bad evidence. A good example of this at the federal level is Richard Nixon’s drug policy.
Drug policy seems like an area where empiricism and facts would rule. It feels like an area where we could identify the harms of drug use, estimate the social costs of drugs, and set policy accordingly, but American history shows that is not the case. John Hudak examines this history in his book Marijuana: A Short History, and shows how Richard Nixon used propaganda related to drug use to fuel his electoral campaign.
Hudak writes, “In fact, crafting public opinion on drug use and crime was central to Richard Nixon’s electoral strategy: he recognized that if he could stoke fears among the public about the drug problem and then position himself as the individual most capable of fighting the war against drugs, he would benefit electorally. In many ways he was right.”
Even though we can track drug related crimes, we can record drug overdose deaths, and we can estimate the social cost of drug use, our policies are driven more by fear and the desire to others into villains than by facts. Richard Nixon was clearly a master of understanding and manipulating public opinion, and used this reality to his advantage. Rather than encouraging public opinion to reflect the realities of drug uses, Nixon tied drug use with racial anxiety and resentment in a way that helped his own electoral fortunes. Public policy, Nixon demonstrated, was not swayed primarily by facts and logic, but by fear and irrationality.
For those of us who care about an issue and want to see responsible policy regarding the issues we care about, we must understand that empiricism and facts is not the only thing behind public policy. Public policy reflects emotion, power, and influence, and is subject to framing by people whose motives are not always pure. Advocating and supporting good public policy requires that we get beyond facts and figures, and understand the frames being applied to the policy in question.