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May 28th, 2017

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Toward a More Productive Policy Discourse

Laura Hollis

By Laura Hollis

Published Oct. 2, 2014

One of the most infuriating aspects of modern political discourse is the Left's insistence upon arguing about people's intentions, and corresponding refusal to discuss the effectiveness of policies and programs.

Anyone who dares to point out that some progressive policies harm the very constituencies they claim to help, finds himself on the receiving end of accusations such as, "Republicans don't care about the poor" or "conservatives want to push granny off a cliff." The MSM gleefully helps deflect the public's attention from policy failures, repeating these memes ad nauseum.

Republicans, it seems, are so terrified of the media narrative over which they have such little control, that few take the bull by the horns. Instead, they fight the "battle of good intentions," vigorously defending their altruistic bona fides. We need conservative candidates who can turn this dynamic around and take control of the political discourse. I propose asking a series of brief questions in any debate with a progressive about policy, as follows:

1. What are you looking to accomplish?

Focusing on intentions obscures the much more important emphasis upon results. Conservatives should require political opponents to define the success of a proposed (or current) policy. Answers such as "We want to alleviate poverty" or "We want to increase literacy" are fine, but we should press for specifics: In which population? By what percentage? By what date? Another way of asking this question is when will you know if you've succeeded? If a policy's success is never defined, its failure cannot be acknowledged.

Additionally, this question enables conservatives and progressives to agree on many objectives, and to debate the relative ability of competing proposals to achieve those objectives, which prompts the next question:

2. How do you know your program will accomplish that?

If someone can be pinned down on an objective, the next logical step is to ask how they know that their policy will accomplish what they seek to do. Often, the honest answer to this question is, "Well, we don't know. But we have to do something ." Response? That's not a good enough reason to take hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars and throw it down a rat hole.

Although I phrase these questions prospectively (that is, addressed to proposed policies or programs), they are even more clearly answered when one is dealing with an existing program, i.e.: How well has X policy (fill in the blank) worked? How many fewer people are in poverty? How many more children are born into two-parent homes? How many more young black males have escaped the destructive cycle of drugs, incarceration and unemployment? How many more jobs have been created? How much better are our children performing academically?

In other words, by any measure that they have defined as "success," have their policies succeeded?

If the answer is "no," then those defending failed policies should not be allowed to hide behind their intentions, while those advocating for improvement are slandered by a condescending elite.

3. Will/does your program create more problems than it purports to solve?

Above and beyond failed objectives, conservatives must draw the public's attention to the pattern of unintended consequences in so many progressive policies, not least of which are exploding costs. How many proposed "solutions" infringe upon constitutional rights (gun control, Obamacare, certain EPA regulations)? How many well-intentioned programs that already exist are failures (VA, Indian Health Services), riddled with fraud (Medicaid) or facing insolvency (Social Security)? How do anyone's "intentions" trump these realities? Or ...

4. Why shouldn't we consider a policy that has a better chance of working?

A meaningful policy debate is not possible without an alternative proposal. But no one — Republican, Democrat, Libertarian or Independent — should be allowed to get away with offering untested policies that do little more than appeal to emotion.

Where should those alternatives come from? Happily, this country is filled with visionary, hard-working people who have employed successful programs on a local, regional or state-wide level. Instead of pushing massive national expenditures for progressive pipe dreams, we should be identifying those successes and finding ways to scale them up.

Previously:
09/25/14: That burden called 'motherhood'
09/23/14: Obama's Johnny Bravo Moment

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Laura Hirschfeld Hollis is on the faculty at the University of Notre Dame, where she teaches courses in business law and entrepreneurship. She has received numerous awards for her teaching, research, community service and contributions to entrepreneurship education.

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