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.
I like to think deeply about public policy. I think there are very interesting structures and ideas that we could put in place which would help us to achieve better outcomes in our societies. The challenge, however, is that the outcomes we want to see are based on value judgement. As in, I think the world should be more this way or that way. When we use the word should we are expressing a judgement that represents some type of value that we hold, which other people might not hold. That means that our political structure is ultimately based on opinion and preference rather than rational cold hard facts.
But we don’t really see our world of politics in this way. We see the world of politics differently, believing instead that there is a clearly preferential best answer that can be empirically determined, and arguing as if we know what that perfect answer is. The result from this in the United States, where we have a two party system, seems to be polarization and contempt for the people on the other team. Across the globe, this tends to result in blaming others for bad things that we see around us, and voting for politicians who make us feel warm and fuzzy and rationalizing our support for them even if their ideas might not actually make sense when fully implemented.
In his book The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen writes about this phenomenon, “Elections these days often seem more about who is to blame than who is to govern.” We don’t think deeply during an election about the governable skills that someone has. We discuss policy, but the reality is that almost none of us understand policy in a deep way, and if we do, we only understand one narrow policy space. We are not all economic experts across the board, we are not all education experts, and we are not all medical experts. But we have vague senses about what would be in our interest and what types of views we should hold to fit in with other people like us. As a result we fall into a blame game where we criticize the other side for bad things and put blinders on to ignore the governance shortcomings of our own team.
Cowen continues, “Voters are less inclined to see their selection as a long-term contract with a candidate or party and more likely to see it as resembling a transaction with a used car salesman.” This is not surprising if you consider that no one is actually a policy expert. We want to see people like us do well in society, so we align with whoever seems to be best positioned to do that. We don’t really know what will lead to good outcomes, but as long as the politician or party says that people like us are good, then we know to align with and vote for.