Volume 25/1996-1997 contents | Duke Policy News Online | Sanford Institute

When elected officials seek political power by inciting and exploiting fear, ignorance and greed, then politics corrupts policy.


Public Policy and Democracy

By Daniel T. Blue, Jr.

Politics plays an immense role--often times to the detriment of the public. The aim of policy is to raise an entire community's quality of life. The aim of politics is to raise one subgroup's quality of life. When elected officials seek political power by inciting and exploiting fear, ignorance, and greed, then politics corrupts policy.

Let me give you a few examples of one of our most politicized issues: taxes.

Two years ago a Democratic office holder published a book about public finances, and told a horrifying tale of how taxes had grown exponentially since 1900. This growth in our taxes, he warned, is on the same scale as that which brought about the fall of Rome and Greece. Yes, taxes are higher now--much higher. And standards of living are higher now--much higher. They are higher because of better roads, sewers, sanitation systems, health care, transporta-tion, communications-all of which come from the direct investment of tax dollars, or the indirect investment of tax dollars through schools and universities.

But the book doesn't say that. It's like a cost/benefit analysis that refuses to analyze the benefits. Yet notice how often people crusade for cutting taxes-though it's only half a message. In Washington early last year, Congress voted first on tax cuts, then on budget cuts--so people saw what they were getting, but not what they were giving up.

For a policy maker, taxes are neutral. They are high or low depending on what you get for them. For a politician in this climate, taxes--wherever they are set, and whatever they might buy--are much too high.

As another example, consider crime. Crime is down. Fear of crime is up. Passing laws based on the statistics is policy. Passing laws based on fear is politics.

When an elected official elevates political concerns over policy considerations, he or she elevates self-interest and special interest over public interest.

Passing laws based on the statistics is policy. Passing laws based on fear is politics.

But a healthy democracy can withstand these forces--not by taking politics out of the policy process; you can never make politics matter less, but you can make policy matter more. In an ideal democracy, good policy IS good politics. But an ideal democracy requires three conditions: all people must have: 1) an equal say in choosing our leaders, 2) an equal understanding of the issues, and 3) an equal stake in the results. There are three steps we can take that will move us nearer to the ideal and elevate the political value of good public policy: 1) clean up campaign finance, 2) equalize educational opportunity, and 3) equalize economic opportunity.

Number one: Clean up campaign finance--this will help give citizens a more equal say in choosing our leaders. Our campaign finance laws are a grotesque violation of the principle of one person, one vote. As you all know very well, public policy is good if it raises the quality of life for society as a whole. When a politician must please a majority of constituents to get re-elected, he or she has the incentive to write good policy.

But when a politician has to please those who finance his or her campaign, he or she has the incentive to skew public policy in favor of the strongest segment of society-those who make the financial contributions.

Number two: Equalize educational opportunity. Educational opportunity is the bedrock of democracy. This was apparent to the foremost 19th and 20th century American educators. Educational pioneers from John Dewey to Horace Mann to Robert Maynard Hutchins have all written about the importance of education in strengthening democracy.

As long as educational opportunity is rationed in this country, those who are well educated will drown the democratic voices of the undereducated--again encouraging politicians to serve only those whose voice they hear.

Number three: Equalize economic opportunity. The Home Mortgage Disclosure Act has shown that in many areas of the country, blacks cannot buy the same priced home as whites unless blacks earn more money. And statistics show that they can't earn more money unless they have much more education.

If economic opportunity is denied to a segment of society, that segment will see no stake in engaging in the discussions leading up to or in the outcome of elections and will stay away from the polls-again encouraging politicians to serve only those voices he hears.

Campaign Finance Reform, Educational Opportunity, Economic Opportunity. You must promote these three to make sure all citizens have an equal say, and equal understanding, and equal stake.

If any of these are missing, the interests of some sector of society will get written out of the political calculus. Once that happens, good policy becomes bad politics, bad policy becomes good politics, and you will have less to say about the public policy of this country, your state, your city, than will the political consultants, pollsters, focus group coordinators and press secretaries.

Your chances of implementing good public policy-regardless of how great or brilliant your ideas-depend directly on the strength of our democracy. A weak democracy-a government of some of the people, by some of the people, for some of the people-will not welcome your efforts to lift the lives of all the people. But a strong democracy-built by your obligation as a citizen to inject in all around you a sense of purpose and mission which transcends even your lofty training in public policy; one built by your continuing to strive for political access through campaign reform, educational opportunity and economic opportunity-will warmly and eagerly embrace your ideas, elevate the value of your degree, help your wisdom make a bigger difference. But most importantly, that strong democracy will enable you to help raise and exalt the lives of all people.

Daniel T. Blue, Jr., a member of the N.C. State Legislature, is the former Speaker of the House. This article is excerpted from his commencement speech to the Sanford Institute's 1996 MPPs.

Volume 25/1996-1997 contents | Duke Policy News Online | Sanford Institute