Reframing policy failures: an American tradition

July 1, 2013 § 9 Comments

Dalrock’s latest post exposes a common political gambit: the re-framing of a policy failure as a moral failing in the populace. This permits those who favor the failed policy, and therefore do not want to see it changed, to avoid taking responsibility and fixing the actual problem by changing the policy:

The liberal response to conservatives pointing out that high taxes are strangling the economy is to accuse those responding to the current incentives of being selfish or unpatriotic. We see the same pattern across a slew of issues, including stifling environmental regulations, capital gains taxes, minimum wage laws, and rent control. Liberals tend to want to shame actors into going against their own best interest in order to prop up bad public policy, where conservatives tend to point out the folly of using shame and moral coercion to overcome bad policy. The solution to bad policy, conservatives regularly point out, is to fix the policy, not to try to strong arm companies and individuals to go against their own best interest.

But all of this suddenly changes when the bad policy is regarding marriage. Then the same conservatives* who stand ready to offer a detailed lecture on the need to match risk with reward, authority with responsibility, and to have consistent and fair enforcement of contracts suddenly switch to the tactics of a liberal defending a 90% marginal tax rate**.

“Sure it goes against a man’s best financial and legal interests to marry under the current system, but making foolish choices regarding risk and reward is what being a man is all about! Where is your sense of adventure, your patriotism?”

This sort of denial, which enables liberals to maintain their support of policies despite the manifest failure of those policies (most modern self-identified “conservatives” have strong loyalties to liberalism, disagreeing with other liberals and more radical leftists mainly about the details of policies and priorities) — this denial has a long pedigree, going back at least to the American founding. John Adams, for example, preemptively stated that any failures in the American experiment would be attributable, not to weaknesses in the Constitution, but to moral failings in the populace:

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

§ 9 Responses to Reframing policy failures: an American tradition

  • Dalrock says:

    the re-framing of a policy failure as a moral failing in the populace. This permits those who favor the failed policy, and therefore do not want to see it changed, to avoid taking responsibility and fixing the actual problem by changing the policy:

    Very well put. This really is it. The problem is there is so much denial wrapped around this which has to be burned through first. It can be exhausting. However, now that we have it nicely framed it should be much easier to address.

    Your connection with the Adams quote is excellent insight. I hadn’t made the connection, and had to read your final paragraph a few times to really get it. Looking at it that way as you say shows how prevalent this tendency is. I suspect however that it isn’t limited just to different flavors of liberalism or the US. This mental shortcut to avoid coming to terms with reality is something I imagine we all are tempted by.

    Thank you for the kind linkage, both on this post and your previous one.

  • Dalrock says:

    One other thought. My first contact with the basic phenomenon was not in a political context, but in a managerial one. Specifically, I encountered the practice of managers creating a set of metrics to reward success and then complaining that people are overly focusing on the metrics which come with rewards. This is typically the case where two values are or can be in conflict (eg quality vs cost). The right answer is to better tailor the metrics to measure the larger picture management is claiming they want to achieve. Very often the missing metric would be easy enough to add to the mix, but there is some unspoken (but passionate) reluctance to formally or even informally add/track it. I discussed this in one of my very first posts: Does your church measure divorce?

  • Zippy says:

    I considered pointing out that even if the populace is in fact behaving badly that doesn’t make the policy successful. “This policy would work if only people would behave better” is still an attempt at a reframe: a red herring, in more traditional terms. When what is at issue is the policy and its actual effects, it is pointless to assert that better people would play along. In the limit, better people need no governance or policies whatsoever.

    But I didn’t want to muddy the waters with too many points in one post.

  • Zippy says:

    Dalrock:
    Part of the reason you had to re-read my last paragraph is because it was written incoherently. I’ve updated it to hopefully convey the same message with better coherence, if not necessarily better grammar.

    And it is a fair point that the tendency to reframe this way isn’t specifically liberal; but the American liberal tradition prides itself on realism and pragmatism, so it is especially ironic in that context.

  • Scott W. says:

    This sort of denial, which enables liberals to maintain their support of policies despite the manifest failure of those policies

    Not just denial, but in many cases a perverse doubling-down on a bad hand. “What? You say the motor-oil we poured into the washing machine ruined the laundry? Clearly we are not using enough motor-oil, and only a crony of Big Detergent would say otherwise!”

  • Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

    Sounds like a backhanded compliment to me. A moral and religious people would thrive under almost any constitution.

  • Proph says:

    A corollary impulse is the one that sees the failure introduced by bad policy x as evidence that the pre-x order of things was corrupt and broken; after all, if it was that great, how could it’ve been destroyed by x? Bonald called this the “anti-integralist fallacy” (http://bonald.wordpress.com/2011/09/06/the-anti-integralist-fallacy/).

  • […] at it again, agreeing and expounding upon Dalrock. Take away, conservatives are suckers for the sunk cost fallacy of public […]

  • […] groundwater and from which most Catholics unconsciously sip. It is a classic example of denial, of reframing one’s own failures as the result of the shortcomings and weaknesses of others, and of course we need hardly even speak of its manifestly delusional parousiastic […]

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