Persuasion and Issue-Framing
Learn Liberty

Fred Smith's chapter in "Creating Your Path to a Policy Career." 

Free-market advocates often seek to convert others to our way of thinking with a quasi-religious fervor. America's strength, however, lies in its diversity of values. If free market policies are to gain support, we cannot focus on communicating only to those who value liberty above all. We must also reach out to constituencies who place greater stock in other values.

Too often, we neglect to explain that free-market policies not only promote liberty, but also are effective in securing other values. We must persuade others! Note that to some liberals, freedom is just another word for nothing more to lose! And while many conservatives champion freedom, they are often more concerned with security, stability, and preserving traditional institutions. We should persuade these groups that our focus on liberty does not mean we ignore other values. Rather, we believe the institutions of liberty are an effective means of promoting other values as well.

To advance free-market policies, we need not converts but rather supporters for specific reform policies. Persuasion requires that we recognize America's diversity and frame our issues to appeal to alternate values. We need to avoid the purist's refrain: Oh no, you're agreeing with me for the wrong reason! Our ultimate goal is a world in which freedom is secure. We do not need everyone to share our convictions to achieve that.

Consider the religious disputes that plagued Europe for centuries. Catholics and Protestants each held that their relatively small differences were of critical importance. After all, the immortal souls of those failing to follow God's dictates were at stake. Each side was willing to use force to bring the others to truth-and often did. In the name of God, wars raged throughout Europe for centuries.

In America, a new course was crafted. Religious disputes were moved out of the political sphere and into the private one. Doctrinal disputes became matters of persuasion rather than forced conversion. Different denominations established their own places of worship, where they were free to persuade others-but were denied the ability to use coercion to that end.

America achieved religious tolerance as a land of disparate religious communities. That heterogeneity increased support for the separation of church and state-a doctrine which not only reduced violence, but also strengthened religion, as different faiths had to compete to attract adherents.

Persuasion is an effective strategy for reaching a broader audience and for preserving the diversity of our country. But in seeking to persuade, we face a serious challenge. Few people find it reasonable to educate themselves about policies about which they can do little. This is known as rational ignorance. Too often, we in the policy community seek to "educate" the public about the "facts" of a policy, failing to understand that this rational approach is irrelevant to individuals who suffer from information overload and feel that they lack the means to influence policy.

We should recognize that most citizens find it foolish to spend time sorting out the complex claims of policy battles. As I've often noted:

In the political world, 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!

But if information doesn't determine opinion, what does? Something, certainly, for opinion polls consistently find that people hold opinions about most policy issues. The question is, what explains the views people hold on issues they haven't thought about?

A wide body of literature suggests that people derive their opinions of complex issues from their core values. Effective persuasion requires that we frame our policies in ways that convey understanding and sympathy for their values.

Intellectual arguments come into play only after we've succeeded in opening a communication link. We must first give them a reason to listen. In other words, people don't care what we know, until they know that we care!

  We must develop policy marketing skills if we are to engage the citizenry and thus overcome their rational inclination to ignore our policy arguments and simply default to their typical views (liberals favoring regulations, conservatives rejecting change). Carefully selecting the appropriate message and messenger is a crucial step.

Our focus on winning the war of ideas has been important, but it has led us to neglect this marketing challenge. Free-market advocates often feel frustrated: Just because we're right, do we have to lose? Of course we don't, but success will require that we recognize that rationally ignorant citizens base their policy opinions on mental shortcuts.

Which communication techniques can we employ to ensure that people come to see the policies of liberty as compatible with their values? How can we persuade them to listen? And most importantly, how can we reach beyond those already favoring liberty?

A values-based communication (VBC) approach is an effective solution to our persuasion challenge. This technique first emerged from the work of the late duo Aaron Wildavsky (a political scientist) and Mary Douglas (a cultural anthropologist). In a number of works, they suggested that individuals generally hold one of four core values. Three of these are clearly evident in our political system today: individualism, hierarchy, and egalitarianism (the fourth, fatalism, is less politically relevant).

Much of the cultural diversity within societies is captured by these core beliefs. We must find ways of communicating and persuading each value group:

  • Individualists place great weight on freedom and choice. They make up our primary constituency. However, many individualists fear Big Business as much as Big Government. And, of course, when Big Business and Big Government join forces, they do suppress freedom and competition to a much greater degree than either could alone. Thus, public choice arguments that emphasize political rent-seeking and moral arguments that champion freedom can be effective in reaching this group.
  • Hierachists often view government as an alternative path to achieving desirable social goals. Arguments based on the comparative effectiveness of free markets and appeals to authority, all backed with empirical evidence, can be especially useful here.
  • Egalitarians are the most difficult group for free-marketeers to persuade. When reaching out to this group, we need to focus on the unintended, harmful consequences of statist policies on the poor and disadvantaged.

VBC suggests that if we hope to win the policy debate, we cannot simply harp on why our policies advance liberty. To persuade, we must gain greater cultural understanding of liberty's role in advancing other cultural values. In essence, our goal is to make freedom popular, encourage free-market public policies, reduce government intrusions on society, and ultimately enhance the quality of life for all.

When making economic arguments, we achieve more by not focusing exclusively on economic efficiency and freedom of choice. We must show that market-based economics also advances other important values, such as fairness and security. Indeed, in many debates, we are more likely to win by putting forth arguments that show how markets reduce the suffering associated with poverty, that richer is healthier, and that freedom of exchange promotes more equitable social arrangements.

We need to show that governmental programs not only undermine individual choice and initiative-an argument that appeals to individualists-but also unfairly serve the politically organized at the expense of everyone else-which appeals to egalitarians-and are often mismanaged and bureaucratic-which appeals to hierarchists.

An example involves the pesticide DDT. Environmental activists managed to get it banned in various countries around the world in the 1970s based on largely unfounded claims about human health risks. In reality, DDT has had no measurable adverse impact on human health. But the bans have contributed to the deaths of millions of African children because bans prevented its use to kill malaria-causing mosquitoes.

Rather than work solely to educate people about the science, free-market groups were able to prevent an international ban and reverse some national bans by highlighting the plight of those poor children. We rightly appealed to those who value fairness and justice, and showed how the liberty to employ such public health tools is essential to human well-being. As a result, even otherwise left-leaning health advocates, including some prominent public health officials, changed their view of DDT and supported its limited use to curb the spread of malaria.

Winning in the world of ideas is a lot like winning souls. It is better done by persuasion rather than forced conversion. Like Catholics and Protestants, libertarians, egalitarians, and hierarchists can coexist and mutually benefit from a free society. Our job is to persuade our fellow citizens of that fact, showing how a freer society can also be a fairer, more orderly, and more secure one.