Selling Ideas in a Rationally Ignorant World

Selling Ideas in a Rationally Ignorant World

November 01, 1999
Originally published in The Insiders

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.