Public policy and policy entrepreneurs


Photo: Governor Dayton recruiting children to his evil empire

(Source: Flikr Creative Commons, )

I started reading a piece in MinnPost by Kim Crockett, vice president of Center of the American Experiment, entitled, “”Dayton’s plan for raising great ‘workers’: Turn your kids over to the state.” I almost spit out my morning coffee; here are a couple of excerpts:

Dayton is demanding that all of Minnesota’s 4-year-olds be sent to school.

No, he is not.

Dayton also said he wants new child-care initiatives from “birth to age three.” Yikes! That used to be called parenting. It is interesting how he talks about the value of our children to the state; our kids are future “workers” who will make the state great, and so on. It is as if our kids are being prepared to serve the state rather than the other way around. (emphasis mine)

No, I don’t think he is doing this either. Instead, this passage reflects the libertarian starting point for Crockett’s view of citizens and the state.  It echos the opening Milton Friedman’s classic, Capitalism and Freedom in which he reflects on President Kennedy’s phrase, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

Neither half of the statement expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that is worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society. The paternalistic “what your country can do for you” implies that government is the patron, the citizen the ward, a view that is at odds with the free man’s belief in his own responsibility for his own destiny. The organismic, “what you can do for your country” implies that government is the master or the deity, the citizen, the servant or the votary. To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them.

This isn’t the only way to view the relationship between citizens and governments but Crockett presumes that Dayton is a collectivist and the rest of us must fight against his efforts to make us vassals.

This piece is an example of what annoys me about public policy writing for the general public.  In particular, I agree with three points Crockett is making:

  • The evidence is mixed on whether it’s better to target government resources on pre-K for certain groups or to create a universal program;
  • It’s not certain whether or not all-day kindergarten for 4-year-olds is a  good thing for all kids
  • Unionizing child care providers may or may not be beneficial to either the providers or the kids.

But that’s not the way Crockett presents these issues.  Instead, she promotes the idea that Governor Dayton wants to expand government, either for its own sake or to increase the ranks of Democratic voters via public unions.  He couldn’t possibly disagree with the Center for the American Experiment on this issue; rather, there must be some malevolent intent on his part.

This is an example of a trend in public policy writing of which readers need to be wary: the movement away from a starting point in which we ask questions and then sift the evidence for answers, and towards beginning with the conclusions and searching backwards for supporting data.

Academics practice the former, at least ideally.  We have questions about the world and make hypotheses about the answers. We then apply our tools (in my case, economics and history) to test the hypotheses.  Sometimes we’re right, sometimes we’re wrong. For instance, in my doctoral dissertation I hypothesized that reducing the federal government’s debt by 75% from 1870 to 1890 provided a strong boost to economic growth over that period.  I was wrong: no matter how you slice it, now matter how you model it, it just didn’t matter very much.

Policy entrepreneurs start with the answers. They often have advanced degrees and know all of the tools of the academic trade. However, they use their skills to buttress positions by citing research and statistics in support of an existing position rather than questioning the position in the first place.

Politicians and advocates like policy entrepreneurs because they can write up position papers that look and sound academic but are not.  Politicians and advocates get annoyed with academics because we’re always asking questions and saying things like, “well, on the one hand… but, on the other hand…”

Keep your eyes and ears open for the difference. You’ll get much more out of the policy debates than if you simply accept work like Crockett’s.