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Selling Ideas in a Rationally Ignorant World

by Fred Smith
November 01, 1999

Conservative intellectuals are increasingly frustrated at the policy impasse of the last five years. Weren’t we told that if we built a better mousetrap, the world would beat a path to our door? With a Republican Congress, shouldn’t we have expected more reform? We seem to be winning the War of Ideas – why aren’t we winning the war?

The answer, in part, is better marketing. Selling is necessary whether we’re dealing with soap or school choice initiatives. Neither a policy reform idea or a bar of soap is likely to walk off the shelf by itself. We’ve become pretty good at analysis but we must improve our marketing skills. This problem isn’t new, of course. We’ve dominated the think tank world, but few intellectuals are natural marketers. Over the last decade, most of our groups have recognized this lack, and we’ve added marketing staff and mounted aggressive outreach programs. Still, the problem persists. Why?

Let me suggest that neither conservatives nor libertarians have yet fully understood the ways in which the marketing of policy differs from the marketing of product. You can’t sell welfare reform in the same way you sell soap. Conventional marketing is a three-stage process: Analyze the problem, find a solution, and educate the customer. Marketing Science 101!

And, indeed, in the private sector, this type of fact-based marketing strategy can be very effective. Unfortunately, think tanks have tried to replicate that strategy in the policy marketing world: We’ve analyzed government programs, developed appropriate reforms, and then sought to educate the public on their merits. Indeed, we’ve inundated them with policy papers, monographs, books and conferences. But they don’t seem to be reading them – why not?

After all, comparable efforts in the private sector do work. Marketing materials informing consumers about the virtues of a specific college or pension plan or home refinancing option are sought after by potential customers. In the private sector a quality product combined with a thoughtful consumer education campaign will generally succeed. The reason is that facts influence our choice and our choice directly affects our welfare.

And it is this last point that makes policy marketing so very different from product marketing. Policy facts are interesting – some people will read them – but then, so what? Sure we’re affected by regulations and taxes and myriad other government policies, but what can we do about them? For most people, the answer is "Not much!" As a result, the reasonable man will spend little time on political issues. And, indeed surveys show that many Americans know the names of neither of their senators. Now to us policy wonks, this may seem a horrible dereliction of civic duty. But to people in the real world, does it really matter whether their senator’s name is Murkowski or Milkulski?

Americans are busy people. They have real lives. They don’t have time to become expert on everything. And they most assuredly don’t read the Federal Register before dozing off each night. They rationally devote time to becoming informed about those things they can do something about, which means that they are rationally ignorant about most things in the political realm. Yet, we in the policy world keep trying to educate them, to make them as knowledgeable as we are! Bad idea.

In politics, people aren’t stupid because they’re stupid!
They’re stupid because they’re smart!
And, if we try to make them smart,
We’re being stupid!

Yet, although people will not be knowledgeable, they will have opinions. And public opinion is important in our democracy, because it defines the bounds of the politically feasible.

But do we have to lose, just because we’re right? No! Yet if knowledge doesn't determine public opinion, and if we can't rely on policy papers, how can we influence public opinion? The answer, suggested by the late political scientist Aaron Wildavsky, is a values-based (rather than a fact-based) marketing strategy. People encounter a policy proposal and quickly assess whether the reform idea seems to advance or threaten their core values – then they support or oppose the idea accordingly. Not much time is spent on this assessment; but the results are important, and we should seek ways to show how our policies advance their values. There’s not much we can do to change people’s values, and issues are what they are. But, we can (and should) positively link our policies with their values.

So, what political values are important? Wildavsky suggested three: Individualism (How would the policy affect freedom or liberty?); Hierarchy (How would the policy affect the ability of our society to function or to produce wealth?); and Egalitarianism (How would the policy affect fairness or the fate of the less fortunate in our society?).

Free market and conservative think tank staff have naturally tended to emphasize freedom and economic growth values. These are the values that have motivated most of us to enter the policy world. And prior to the Reagan Revolution, they worked. With the economy in disarray and the Evil Empire seemingly becoming ever stronger, these values were dominant. When times are bad, the "Get off our backs!" and "It’s the economy Stupid!" strategies can be very compelling. Indeed, the Republicans’ appeal to these values brought them much success – checking the growth of taxes and regulations and the ending of the Cold War. But those successes changed the values landscape. Once freedom and wealth seemed secure, fairness moved to center stage. America is now focused on how policy affectsminorities, the elderly, and, of course, the children. And in our relatively wealthy and free America, these egalitarian concerns will only become more salient.

Unfortunately, neither conservatives nor libertarians address such egalitarian fairness issues very well. We seem to care more about money than the health of people or our planet. We focus on freedom (to many an abstract concept) rather than on explaining how the less fortunate might take advantage of such freedom. To egalitarians, freedom sometimes seems merely a tactic to evade responsibility – "freedom," they think, "is just another word for nothing left to lose!" Our side seems obsessed with arcane budget battles and the nuances of tax policy. Our advocacy arguments sound harsh and our factual arguments are not really heard (because of the rational ignorance problem again).

We can do better. Tax reform advocates might well focus less on the "It’s your money!" argument and more on how reduced taxes would extend the job expansion trends of the last few decades. We should note that the greater tax and regulatory burden in Europe has made their unemployment problem much worse and much more unfair. That is, we could and should argue tax reform on egalitarian grounds. To date, we haven’t even tried.

Or consider the gun control debate. Our arguments have focused on the Constitution and individual rights. Valid arguments, but those finding these arguments persuasive are already opposed to such restrictions. We’ve done too little to dramatize how private gun ownership has made the world safer for the more vulnerable, namely the residents in lawless inner city areas or single females. We’ve barely attempted to rethink the arguments that once portrayed the gun as the Great Equalizer – bringing egalitarian fairness to a lawless frontier society.

We’re learning, though. The case for school choice is increasingly made on the impact such programs will have on the inner city poor. Even here, however, we often slip into the technical details of how school choice leads to improved SAT scores rather than how it democratizes education, making it possible for inner city Johnnies to read just as well as their suburban counterparts.

Welfare reform, too, became a successful issue only after we began to point out that it was a way of helping the poor regain dignity and to expand their opportunities – not simply a way of saving money and reducing bureaucracy. Indeed, the "compassionate conservatism" term can itself best be viewed as a conservative challenge to the liberal dominance of the egalitarian moral high ground.

None of this means that we should abandon our principles or pander. There is no inconsistency between policies that advance liberty, improve the economy, and expand opportunity. America is a fairer nation because we are wealthier and freer! We are the nation that democratized the privileges of the elites in Europe. They invented the car; we put the world on wheels. But, we must ensure that we make that point – that we talk about how our policies help the little guy as well as the entrepreneur. In effect, our challenge is to find ways to "wrap" our policies (which truly are fair) in an "egalitarian" wrapping paper. Besides, if we can persuade egalitarians to look at our reform ideas, they might just like them.

It may seem like a cliché, but in the political world of rational ignorance, people don’t care what we know until they know that we care! We do care. We should say so.


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