Good Policy Is Good Politics

Report Political Process

Good Policy Is Good Politics

May 24, 2001 18 min read
The Honorable Tom Feeney
Education Research Fellow

It is a particular honor to be here today, to be introduced by Ed Moore of the James Madison Institute and to share some thoughts with my many friends at The Heritage Foundation. Two institutions: one with a national perspective, including the appropriate relationship of federalism under the Tenth Amendment between our federal government and the states, and the other a primarily state-based think tank named after an individual who did more deep and serious thinking about the United States Constitution and the relationship between free men and their government than perhaps any other American.

It's not so much constitutional principles that I thought I would discuss today as some empirical evidence from the last century as it relates to defining the relationship between good policy on the first hand and good politics on the second. As we journey together into the dawn of a new millennium, I believe it is instructive to look back on the last 100 years of our world.

There were many incredible and fascinating scientific developments during the last century, with its explosion in technological advancement. One hundred years ago, a prominent American might have ridden in his horse and buggy from his farm to the post office to communicate, through telegraph wires, with legislators in his state capital. On April 2 of this year, Governor Jeb Bush and Lieutenant Governor Frank Brogan joined my House colleagues and me as we spoke from the Florida House Chamber through satellite communications with the manned space station in orbit. Shortly after we finished, a staffer in my office with real-time communications over the Internet used his computer to get immediate stock market listings and first-week baseball scores.

But the political journey of the last one hundred years is at least twice as interesting as the technological one.


The 20th century began with intellectuals around the world and in America predicting the perfectibility of man through the socialist premise and communist ideal. Media and academic elites in America and Britain ignored great terrors that took place in the 1930s and 1940s because they naively bought into the Marxist doctrine that collectivism would protect man from his own weaknesses, including greed.

The "Socialist Ratchet."
There was an air of inevitability in the first half of the century about all this. Historical determinism seemed to explain what Lady Thatcher later described as the socialist ratchet. When liberal governments in free countries take office, they make permanent gains toward the collectivist position; but when conservative and libertarian governments succeeded, at least until Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the gains they made in liberating individuals and expanding freedom from government excess were temporary, lasting only until the next liberal government took office.

Perhaps the easiest way to show just how inevitable the trend toward the totalitarian state appeared in the first half of the last century is to recall Whittaker Chambers, former Communist cell member who became a tortured human as he bore witness against the great evil of communism, found faith, and enlisted in the army of freedom fighters. But as he did so, Whittaker Chambers made one thing very clear: He believed deeply that he was leaving the winning side of history, communism, for the losing side, freedom.

But communism is just one subset of collectivism. Professor F. A. Hayek explained to us in The Road to Serfdom that most academics were wrong when they charted on a linear graph the political spectrum, typically with communism on the far left of this scale, moving toward socialism and democracy and free markets in the middle, and ultimately ending up with right-wing totalitarianism in the Nazi style.

Professor Hayek demonstrated, for those who would listen, that the real issue is the extent to which centralized government controls resources and decisions on the one hand versus the extent to which individuals can make choices over their own lifestyles, activities, and resources in free markets on the other. Maximizing individual choice leads to the benefits Professor Adam Smith described as the magic of the "invisible hand." Nazism and socialism are not polar opposites but two peas in a pod when reviewed in Hayek's terms.

In the first half of the last century, those of us who stood on the side of individual freedom versus the coercion of collectivism looked as if we were losing very badly. But while the political-economic trends seemed to be going badly for liberty lovers, there were even more challenging problems on the technology front. If the 20th century stands for any lesson in science and technology, it is that those fields are morally neutral.

The Moral Neutrality of Science
Many of the technological advances have been wonderful. In the field of biomedicine, for example, life expectancies have expanded dramatically, and the quality of life during our visit on Earth improves with every new medical and pharmaceutical discovery (which I note collaterally is somehow not a sufficient experience to relieve liberals of the obligation to bash drug companies for making profits).

But the wonderful advances in technology have also enabled evil people to participate in horrors, including genocide, to an extent previously unimaginable. And make no mistake about it: One of the dangers of big government is that the largest atrocities in human history, from the execution of Christ to the Nazi holocaust of Jews and others they considered undesirable, have been perpetrated and organized by big government.

Nazis have not been alone, nor in terms of sheer numbers have they been the largest perpetrator of genocide in the last century. Zbigniew Brzezinski reminded us in his book, Communism, the Grand Failure, that the 20th century communist governments led by the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China have accounted for the murder and willful starvation of over 150 million of their own citizens. And, of course, that's putting aside war-related casualties from communist aggression. It is a remarkable statement about a philosophy that you can kill 150 million of your own people in order to improve their life.

The Fundamental Issue: Individual Freedom
In light of those observations, it seems rather remarkable to me that in every major election in advanced democracies such as Britain and the United States, to the extent that candidates can intelligently articulate fundamental issues, elections are fought over one simple underlining question: the relationship of free men and women to their government. Stated differently, to what extent is an individual free to exert personal choices over one's actions and resources without fear of interference or punishment from government?

Our country was torn apart over the issue of slavery; but looking at this philosophically, America stood from its inception, through Founding documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, for the principle that human beings were free. Once it was acknowledged that African-Americans were not property but human beings, the political result in the land of the free was inevitable. Unfortunately, it took a bloody civil war to deliver that result.

Another way to state the political question concerning the relationship of an individual to his government is whether it is prudent to advance propositions that appear to deliver security at the expense of an enlarged government sphere of influence and control over individual choices.

Churchill left the Conservative Party for the Liberal Party when the Conservatives failed to acknowledge the lesson taught by Adam Smith concerning the merits of free trade. Promising protection from competition is one method by which politicians purchase votes by promising security.

Lady Thatcher, as early as 1968, talked about the problem of modern politics. In her speech to the Conservative Party Conference at Blackpool in October of 1968, she described the modern election strategies by saying:

All too often one is now asked, "What are you going to do for me?" implying that the program is a series of promises in return for votes. All this has led to a curious relationship between elector and elected. If the elector suspects the politician of making promises simply to get his vote he despises him, but if the promises are not forthcoming he may reject him.

Thatcher continued: "I believe that parties and elections are about more than rivalries of miscellaneous promises-indeed, if they were not, democracy would scarcely be worth preserving."

Democracy as Process
Great point: Remember that democracy is a process. It guarantees no political policy results. While the Constitution protects certain liberties such as the freedom of speech, the press, and worship, for example, democracy unrestrained by a constitution has no guaranteed result. It was certainly a democratic response in Germany that empowered Hitler after the country had endured serious frustrations and economic crises in the aftermath of World War I.

One can imagine, in a perfectly "democratic" process without constitutional restraint, that you could have gone to some towns in certain places in the United States a hundred years ago-or sadly, perhaps 30-and gotten the majority of voters to vote for a proposition that essentially said that if a white woman accused a black man of assault, the accused would be sentenced first and tried afterwards, if at all. These might be perfectly "democratic" results, but our goal is not democracy alone; it is to advance liberty. Fortunately, the Framers understood this 230 years ago.

In this constant battle of freedom versus security at all costs, it is useful to remember that, as Benjamin Franklin said, "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Ronald Reagan, in the tradition of Lincoln, Churchill, and Thatcher, reminded us, as he entered the political stage formally in 1964 in his speech for Barry Goldwater, that the academics who viewed the political spectrum on a yardstick from communism to fascism had it all wrong. He endorsed Hayek's view. Remember the great lines with which he finished his famous address:

You and I are told increasingly that we have to choose between a left or right, but I suggest that there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down-up to man's age-old dream-the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order-or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism, and regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would sacrifice our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.

I believe you should vote for any man who believes that in his heart, whether or not he has movie-star good looks.

Contemporary political battles of importance all seem to fall into this freedom versus security struggle against an ever-growing government control over decisions. Those with faith in big government were apoplectic when candidate George W. Bush proposed letting individuals invest 2 percent of their earnings in a mechanism other than collectivized Social Security. Senator Hillary Clinton, when she was First Lady, promised the equivalent of "free public health care" managed by government collectives. Deep in the details, the plan made it a crime to pay your own money for your own doctor for services outside the government plan. But never mind: We surely would be more secure taking a ticket, standing in a government line, waiting in front of unionized bureaucrats to hope to see a government-controlled doctor.


I go through all this history to tell you that I believe good policy-perhaps not in the short run, but over the long run-is good politics. Ultimately, as a policymaker, one can decide to use the "policy first" approach. That's what Lincoln, Churchill, and Reagan, among others, did, and consequently all of them lost elections. The easier thing to do is to use "politics first." Put your thumb in the air and demagogue the voters about their entitlement to "free this" and "guaranteed that" and how, by virtue of their birth, they're guaranteed not only free health care, drugs, food, clothing, and housing, but dentures, eyeglasses, prescription drugs, and, ultimately, dry cleaning, cable television, and easy chairs. We haven't yet progressed to these last three God-given government entitlements.

Politics First: Energy in California
Recently in California, "politics first" dominated energy policy. California, in their energy policies, didn't "deregulate" anything. What they did was to engage in "hyper-over-regulation," which reminds me of the Hillary health care plan applied to energy. For the past 25 years, this California policy reads like an Ayn Rand novel. In the mid-1960s, a nuclear power plant was approved but went through 20 years of regulatory review. California, because of environmental and zoning regulations, an abhorrence of coal-fired plants in southern California, political opposition to clean nuclear technology, and opposition to fuel oil plants, by 1991 ranked 49th out of 50 states in its per-person capacity to generate electricity.

California did have a strategy: In the last 20 years, California has led the nation in aggressive rewards and encouragement of solar power, windmill farms (which, by the way, have killed dozens of hawks and golden eagles), and liberal incentives for conservation of energy. This is all well and good, but the laws of supply and demand are morally neutral. If you kill off your supply of a product while demand rises, the result is inevitable: explosive price increases.

In the early 1990s, California, under the guise of "deregulation," actually killed off the private supply side of new energy and collectivized the purchase and distribution of energy. Utilities were forced to sell off all their non-nuclear and hydroelectric generating facilities to others. Any contracts for wholesale electricity were subject to government review, so utilities generally refused to sign long-term contracts with power suppliers. Government-controlled boards had power over all purchases and required payment of a uniform price for energy.

These policies killed off the ability to lock in long-term power supplies and forced all energy purchasers in California into the unstable "spot market." Finally, in order to recover their cost for stranded capital under the scheme, utilities agreed to price caps of $65 per megawatt to their customers. When you can only charge $65 per megawatt, you're in a heap of trouble as prices on the spot market, your only provider, reach $1,000 per megawatt. Inside of a year, utilities in California lost $12 billion.

We don't know the end of the California story. We do know that any politician who tries to tell his constituents that dramatic short-term price increases are absolutely necessary is probably in real trouble. But California itself may be in real trouble. In order to keep the state afloat and energy flowing, even if sporadically, California has issued its largest bond in history in the amount of $10 billion to pay for current electricity needs. That's right: California taxpayers in 2011 will be paying for electricity consumed in 2000.

There is no question that pandering to environmental and regulatory extremists; ignoring simple, basic laws of supply and demand in the free marketplace; and displacing the intelligence of market companies and capitalists with foolish, bureaucratic, and political mandates were good politics in the short run. I predict, as I believe Hayek would, that centralized control will be both bad politics and bad policy in the long run.

Policy First: Education Reform in Florida
Let's take another model. When I was elected in 1990 to the Florida House of Representatives, I immediately said that the primary goal, in what I expected to be a few years as a legislator, was to expand choice and opportunities for parents in kindergarten through 12th grade education. I filed the first full-blown voucher bill. In 1990, in the Education Committees in Florida, when you spoke of "choice," people thought you were taking a position on the abortion issue but certainly not on education.

As I did my best to articulate the merits of parental choice, I quickly became known as Florida's leading advocate for choice in education. Some pointed out the irony that the son of two public school teachers-who had gone from kindergarten through law school in public schools, who is not a practicing Catholic, and whose son attended a very fine public school-was the most zealous advocate in Florida for school choice.

It added to the irony when I explained that I got the idea from a Jewish intellectual. In the year I was born, 1958, Professor Milton Friedman pointed out that if we continue the government monopoly in K-12 education in America, two things will happen because they always happen in monopolies: The price of education would skyrocket and academic achievement would decline.

Would that we had had the presence of mind the year I was born to listen to Professor Milton Friedman. But we didn't.

  • Since 1958, per-student spending, adjusted for inflation, is up 300 percent. Many of our public schools are simply unsafe because of physical violence and drugs, and there have been dramatic declines since 1958 in test scores.

  • By 1983, a bipartisan group of governors-the Governors' Commission on Excellence-said that the American education system was in such bad shape that if a foreign power imposed such a system upon us, we would consider it an act of war.

  • In 1996, the U.S. Department of Education, under President Bill Clinton, acknowledged that 50 percent of Americans were functionally illiterate; they could not read a bus schedule.

Yet the status quo apologists have only one answer to our education troubles: more money. That's their only answer.

In Florida, when Jeb Bush became governor, some dramatic things started to occur in education. Instead of focusing just on inputs (dollars spent), we started measuring school results and holding schools accountable. We rewarded and liberated good schools from government mandates, gave annual teacher assessments and merit bonuses in successful schools, prohibited "social promotion," and required state testing of every student in our system. In addition, for students stuck in schools that failed in two or more out of four years, we provided opportunity scholarships that they could take to other public, charter, or private schools, whether religious or non-sectarian.

Creativity Through Competition
Recently, Professor Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute issued a report indicating that the results in 74 failing schools with dramatic one-year improvements can be attributed only to vouchers and the threat thereof. Not only actual competition, but also the mere threat of competition spurs creativity, hard work, and improved results. Education is no different from any other product or service: Government monopolies are destined to fail.

School choice and accountability didn't come about in Florida because voters demanded it. While the proposition that parents should have some school choice is popular, the details concerned even people who supported the concept in theory, and the prospects for change unnerved everybody. And, of course, those that paid the most attention to education policy-PTA members largely happy with their local school, school board members, administrators, and especially teachers union leaders-were adamantly opposed to any choice or any competition.

With respect to the union bosses, Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers was at least candid about his reasons. He said that he would start representing school children when school children started paying union dues.

But remember why many of these folks at heart were so opposed. It's not that they were afraid that choice in education would fail. They were afraid that it would succeed. If we could take a poor minority student out of a public school where we were spending in excess of $10,000 a year (and not educating), provide them a $3,000 voucher to go to a private school, and teach them to read, do math, and other academic skills, then we had taken away the excuses for failure.

Trust me, ladies and gentleman: It is dangerous politics to take away the excuses for failure of the American education system. I've seen this firsthand.

Education and the Political Process
Education is an important matter in a wide variety of areas, not the least of which is the electoral process. As Walter Lippman said, "no amount of charter, direct primaries, or short ballots will make a democracy out of an illiterate people."

Recently, the Princeton Review reviewed transcripts of the Gore-Bush debates, the Clinton-Bush-Perot debate, the Kennedy-Nixon debates, and the Lincoln-Douglas debates. It analyzed the transcripts using a standard vocabulary test to indicate the minimum education level necessary for a reader to understand the documents. The results: Modern presidential nominees use language from grade level 6.3 through grade level 7.9. So elevating your debate language doesn't necessarily turn into victory margins. Abraham Lincoln spoke at grade level 11.2, while Stephen Douglas was at a full 12th grade level.

James Carville is as successful as he is at political strategy because he takes advantage of the decline of sophistication of the American electorate. George Wallace used a simple strategy: "Get your message so low that the goats can get it."

In the short run, if you campaign with an unsophisticated electorate, demagogy and pandering work. By promising to confiscate money from Peter through taxes to endow Paul with gifts from government, you can usually count on Paul's loyal vote. Liberal parties know that all you have to do with this prescription for electoral success is make sure there are more Pauls than Peters.

One reason conservatives should advocate reducing marginal tax rates on everybody, as opposed to removing some voters from tax rolls altogether, is that all productive citizens should pay at least some level of taxes. Otherwise, they have no financial interest whatever in how big government gets or how much it confiscates from others. They don't even have a care about gross mismanagement. It's of no concern to someone not paying school taxes whether tax dollars are wasted. Whether it costs $10,000 to educate (or, in the case of some schools, not educate) children rather than just $5,000 is of no consequence to people contributing nothing to the cost of the education system.

Representative Phillip Brutus is a wonderful new freshman colleague, the first Haitian-American to serve in the Florida House. He is a Democrat, but one I am especially fond of and whom I admire. In the aftermath of the election, with demagogic allegations, finger-pointing, and public vilification of people like Secretary of State Katherine Harris for doing the job entrusted to her, Mr. Brutus may have come closest to the real problem. He's proposed in a bill that henceforth each party would get a color code and that the names of candidates of that party would appear in that color. Also, symbols, little donkeys and elephants, would appear next to the candidate's name.

Education as Prerequisite to Democracy
Education is a prerequisite to a healthy democracy. If one big problem is the inability of some voters to distinguish between the words "Bush" and "Gore," education can resolve that. But for the liberals, here's the rub: If you teach voters to read, they may venture into the field of civics, constitutional principles, history, and economics, at which point they are no longer likely to remain liberals. That's a terrible dilemma for big government advocates, who are beneficiaries of dumbing down the electorate.

The fundamental problem with our election system in Florida is our education system. That must be fixed by ignoring the apologists for the status quo and putting policy first over politics first in education reform.

Benjamin Franklin advised, as he and his friends exited Constitution Hall, that they had given us "a Republic, if you can keep it." No organization is more fundamental in protecting our Republic and encouraging policymakers to put policy first than The Heritage Foundation. With the help of Heritage, an educated electorate will not only be able to read the difference between "Gore" and "Bush," but have the requisite understanding of civics, history, constitutional law, and economics for us to remain a free and democratic people.

With your help, I promise to go forth and minister so that we can have at least another 225 years of the Republic our Founders gave us.

The Honorable Tom Feeney is the Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. His remarks were delivered at the 24th annual Resource Bank Meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


The Honorable Tom Feeney

Education Research Fellow