Inside the Belly of the Beast: Do Policymakers Listen to Pundits?

Recently, a former foreign-policy adviser to Condoleezza Rice wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal concerning the impact—or lack thereof—of political punditry on the actual government officials writing policy. As a political scientist, professor, and commentator who was then asked to join Rice’s team, Eliot Cohen has seen both sides of the issue. His insights and experiences may serve as a guide for whom to target in intellectual activism (and it appears that it’s rarely the policymakers themselves) and he also offers interesting, if sometimes misguided, thoughts on what messages are most effective.

First, however, he sets the stage by describing what goes on in the corridors of power in D.C.
Two years ago, to my surprise and lasting gratitude, Condoleezza Rice asked me to become her senior foreign-policy adviser. … It has, however, occasioned some unsettling reflections on the kind of commentary in which a professor in the foreign-policy world indulges.

My first, sobering observation is that government pays only intermittent attention to talk on the outside. To a remarkable extent, in fact, government talks only to itself.

Officials in the foreign policy and defense worlds go through vast quantities of official data, briefing papers and talking points. They meet urgently with one another. … They telephone and email incessantly. [all emphasis added]
Intra-agency communication is a constant, deafening drumbeat, but this is not unique to the departments Cohen mentions. The volume of intra-agency email is astounding, and the amount of thought apparently given to each email plummets as the volume increases. The near total penetration of the Blackberry in Washington, and thus the constant mobile access to the agency email system, leads to wildfire email storms of panicked, half-thought responses to supposed crises that draw in more and more names with every iteration. Everything turns into a fire drill.

With all of this internal noise, what gets through?
I scanned the press clips, reading an opinion piece rarely, usually when it was written by someone who had a track record for good judgment. By and large, the buzz on the outside was just that -- a background noise of which I was dimly aware, unless it was either unusually nasty, or unusually perceptive, which often merely meant that it fit my own views. [bold added]
I would add that one other thing that gets noticed is bad press. In fact, it’s the constant fear of bad press that has people on edge, and it is often a negative news item or the simple suspicion that something might cause a negative news item that kicks off the Blackberry-fueled firestorms of crazed emails. I provide this context not to simply denigrate the inefficiency and stupidity of government bureaucracy—though that is of course evident—but to back up Cohen’s observations. He also comes up with a perfect analogy:
Government resembles nothing so much as the party game of telephone, in which stories relayed at second, third or fourth hand become increasingly garbled as they crisscross other stories of a similar kind ("That may be what the Russian national security adviser said to the undersecretary for political affairs on Wednesday, but it's not how the Turkish foreign minister described the Syrian view to our ambassador to NATO on Thursday.") Add to this the effects of secrecy induced by security concerns, as well as by the natural desire to play one's cards close to one's vest, and the result is a well-nigh impenetrable murk of policy making. [bold added]
What does this say about how an intellectual commentator—either through blogging, op-eds, letters to the editor, or other activities—should target his message? Quoting Henry Kissinger, he relays that "occasionally an outsider may provide perspective; almost never does he have enough knowledge to advise soundly on tactical moves." Still, Cohen goes on to say that “A tight, well-written, and carefully reasoned examination of a policy problem will bring into focus an issue that the officials have not had the time, or often the literary skill, to capture precisely. That kind of analysis is very much worth reading.” I am unclear why, after stating that policymakers pay little attention to outside buzz, such commentary would have an impact, but take that as you will.

Cohen then spends a fair bit of time examining what kinds of punditry—and specifically, what kinds of policy recommendations—are most likely to be effective. He suggests two rules to follow:
  1. “Never criticize a policy unless you can convincingly depict a better course of action.”
  2. “Do not prescribe a policy that the current group of officials cannot hope to implement because of who they are.”
He says that one shouldn’t propose policies that clash with the core beliefs or “style” of those in power, or “something outside their range of psychological possibility.”

In other words, there is no right answer, just whatever works with their style right now. It’s not even worth one’s time to offer up an idea that isn’t pragmatic. This of course means that policy decisions are left up to the arbitrary whims of those in power—no surprise here—and that there are no objective criteria for what the government should do.

For those whose ideas are based on principles and who wish to promote rational and rights-respecting policy, it seems that there is no place in government for them. Again, this should come as no surprise to readers of this blog.

Cohen goes on to say that “the best commentary has an impact” not because the ideas are new, but because it examines an idea that was already considered (perhaps only briefly) on the inside. If we take that as a given, that leaves a question unasked... just what ideas are we talking about? What types of ideas did the insiders already consider? Based on "their range of psychological possibility," it’s probably fair to say that 99.9% of those already-considered ideas revolve around the altruist-pragmatist axis. The only differences are the exigencies of the moment.

But what happens when the commentary of outsiders directly contradicts the altruist-pragmatist premises?

The likelihood of true laissez-faire solutions or fully individual rights-respecting policies having been considered already is extremely low; those ideas are not held by our politicians, bureaucrats, or the population as a whole. Such a solution, consistently put forth, would earn the label of “impractical,” “doctrinaire,” or “idealistic.” Thus, an op-ed that puts forth a free-market solution to health care or a truly self-interested foreign policy towards Iran would have virtually no effect in Washington, even it if it happened to be read.

Objectivists often say that what is required, if real change is to happen and freedom is to be restored in America, is a broad philosophical movement and deep cultural penetration of the ideas of laissez-faire capitalism and the morality of egoism. But this is a rather abstract notion; it's hard to visualize how it would be accomplished. I think Cohen's example provides a concretization of how such cultural penetration might work. Cohen, who was an academic turned policy wonk, is just the type of person who is often tapped for policy positions in government. As Objectivism grows in academia, it follows that the pool of potential policymakers as a whole will be more sympathetic to the message.

Then, when someone writes a particularly cogent analysis of an issue—or as Cohen said, a “carefully reasoned examination of a policy problem” (such as Ray Niles' piece in The Objective Standard, "Net Neutrality: Toward a Stupid Internet")—it will have the right kind of impact in Washington, because those in government would be already receptive to the ideas in the first place.

I can't imagine the Obama team asking Tara Smith to be their Constitutional law adviser, championing objective law and individual rights, instead of Cass Sunstein, who yearns for FDR's "Second Bill of Rights" (a mishmash of "positive" rights to redistributed loot). But if America can survive another 20 years or so, I'm optimistic that it could happen.


Burgess Laughlin said...

Thank you for a thorough and thoughtful look at an important "source," that is, someone inside government who is both articulate and as objective as one could expect in such circumstances (e.g., being picked by Rice, a supporter of faith-based government).

I don't have time to comment on the many intriguing elements of the story. However I would like to offer a few points for consideration.

1. Those of us who want to work for a better world should clearly distinguish at least three forms of activism: philosophical, intellectual, and political. Philosophical activism means spreading a philosophy as a set of ideas or at least spreading its basic principles (there is one objective reality; reason is man's only tool for dealing with that reality; etc.). A philosophy professor can do this, but so can someone who works to introduce a philosopher's writings into a high school.

By contrast, intellectual activism is the application of timeless, universal philosophical principles to general problems of our society today. E.g., what can we do about a plunging economy? About constant fighting over what to teach in governmental schools? About the violence of drug gangs? Applying philosophical principles--such as the proper role of government and the right of all adults to choose for themselves how they spend their money--to such problems is a process of deduction, in part.

Political activism is different in that it attempts to change the particular terms or personnel of an already existing or newly proposed governmental action: abolishing a certain sales tax; oust a judge; fight a proposed draft law; or abolish a local law that prohibits homeowners from building fences in their front yards.

All three forms of activism need to be done. Sometimes they can be done by the same person in a particular activity, but usually, in my observations, one should specialize.

2. Speaking of specialization brings up a point made by the cited author: One shouldn't bother to write or speak about specific current political activities unless one knows the details. To do that requires long-term specialization. Having the right philosophical principles isn't enough. One must do the long-term digging that leads to being able to speak authoritatively. Therein lies hope of change. This is "in-line activism."

C. August said...

Thanks for your comment, Burgess, and for your description of the three different forms of activism.