Manifest Destiny, John Gast (1872)

The Myth of Policy Purity

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Ideological conflict is nothing new to American politics, but the severity of the gridlock it creates – 2013’s federal government shutdown, for instance – has become especially troubling. And while we gripe about gridlock at each new controversy, we continue to miss an important part of the problem; the assumption of policy purity must be challenged if we are ever to get past debilitating gridlock.

Politicians, pundits and even voters often tend to assume, consciously or unconsciously, that a pure policy path can be taken on a given issue and to interfere with that is “social engineering” which is deemed bad policy for running counter to what nature allegedly intends and attempting to institutionalize a specific worldview.

If you’ve ever heard someone criticize a policy for interfering with the “free market”, for example, you’ve heard this assumption in action. A policy attempts to address something through intervention, say a tax credit to promote home-buying. An opposing group takes issue with the policy, saying it distorts the free market by encouraging a behavior that would not have otherwise occurred. Both sides think they represent the right or “pure” policy and the issue devolves into a fight against undue influence on citizens’ lives. This thought stems from the belief, whether conscious or subconscious, held by each side that their preferred philosophy represents the “right” or “natural” thing to do. Our electorate and consequently our elected officials have become similarly polarized, and the my-way-or-the-highway attitude has created immense pressure to be “pure” in politics and policy. This has made compromise a dirty word, and giving ground against the “wrong” way could cost you support from colleagues, donors, or voters. The derogatory label “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) for GOP members who break rank from the party line to often is an example of the stigma such compromise can bring.

While social engineering is often cast as something to avoid, it has actually shaped the very state of our country. Indeed America today is the aggregated outcome of policy decisions which embraced specific worldviews and encouraged specific behaviors.

The most striking example is that of homeownership. The idyllic and ubiquitous lifestyle of a single-family house on a large plot of land is perhaps the most influential social engineering policy in American history. The Homestead Acts and the Planning and Zoning Enabling Acts began the institutionalization of homeownership as the American Dream, and through financial incentives and land use regulations, such as minimum lot sizes and separation of uses, single-family homeownership was prioritized. Fueled by investments such as the national interstate highway system, this led to the diffusion of job centers, neighborhoods and other nodes of American life into the configuration known today as urban sprawl.

Policies that encouraged homeownership demonstrate social engineering at work. Fueled by such policies and the investments they encouraged, the single-family suburban lifestyle and its characteristic auto-oriented, sprawling pattern has dramatically shaped the American landscape.

While many factors, such as the invention of the automobile and congestion problems created legitimate demand for this new way of living, policies that supported homeownership are all social engineering, having enshrined it into our social fabric. And this can be both good and bad; one look at Detroit can show you the negative consequences this can have over time, but New York or Washington DC can show you the bright side. The different fates of these cities reflect differing social engineering approaches; all three have a sprawling fringe, but New York and DC prioritized and incorporated public transportation into their regional planning, mitigating the tendency of urban sprawl to cause decay in the urban core as it did in Detroit. Detroiters took a less comprehensive approach, fully embracing the automobile-oriented lifestyle and are just now beginning to embrace true public transit, a social engineering decision meant to revive the urban core and restore balance between suburban and urban lifestyles.

Look at any major American policy agenda and you’ll see social engineering at work. The Federal Student Loan Program. The New Deal. The Contract with America. On and on the list could go, each created to advance an ideology, each with its own ideal for society as well as a policy blueprint for building it. When you look at how prevalent social engineering actually is, conflict over policy purity should seem irrelevant. Yet at the heart of most political controversies, this is exactly the conflict we find. To ignore the utility of social engineering is to enslave society to the status quo.

When we can stop fighting the notion of social engineering and start to accept it for what it is – action resulting from negotiating and testing human biases and beliefs – we can move to the real challenge of building the type of society we want.  Given the tone of today’s politics that can seem impossible, but Americans in general have a large amount of common ground from which to start. Anecdotally the ideas of hard work, shared sacrifice, inclusiveness and accountability seem to be things that most, if not all Americans, value as desirable tenets of society, and hard polling evidence shows core areas where Americans agree.  Based on such polling data and public support throughout history for social engineering policies, it’s pretty safe to assume that Americans are just fine with social engineering. But we all know the devil is still in the details and compromise isn’t automatic, especially when legitimate disagreement exists over those details and often the very role of government itself. So how can we battle gridlock with social engineering?

18th Century philosopher John Stuart Mill offers useful observations in his work On Liberty, a discussion on individual freedom and the role of government. He suggests that the natural tendency of society is to impose its ideas and practices on the rest of us, in effect that social engineering is human nature at work. In that environment, he offers an effective role for government as a repository and diffuser of knowledge. He advocates government facilitation of policy experimentation and the replication of success.

Not a bad idea, until you consider how gun-shy we are with experimentation at the national level. Immigration reform, gun laws and environmental policy – key areas that Americans are demanding progress on – are just a few examples of our inability to craft comprehensive federal policy solutions. In some respects, however, we already sidestep national gridlock by leveraging our 50 states as policy laboratories. On issues where national discourse has stalled, the states should be further empowered to implement solutions with federal support for projects that achieve results. The U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top Program is one example. One might say the cars-only experiment in Detroit performed less successfully than the more balanced cars-and-public-transit approaches in New York or DC. Detroit, learning from those examples, is making investments in public transit with federal support. Race to the Top and Detroit’s evolution are both social engineering at work.

Despite the success of similar experimentation and innovation in the private sector, we often stifle attempts to innovate through policy. Through fear of “social engineering”, we disincentivize public sector experimentation as abnormal or unwise. Mill called this fear, that of “being eccentric”, the chief danger of his time but it could easily be of ours. Mill asserts that the “real morality of public discussion” involves calmness and honesty about our beliefs and any that oppose them, evaluating each on their merits. Our own military employs rigorous simulation techniques to generate and evaluate new ideas, taking action based on results, and it is arguably the best in the world.

Only by abandoning the false notion of pure policies and the fear of social engineering can we elevate our political process and the policies it generates. The falsehood of policy purity is the great stumbling block that prevents the American public sector from innovating like its private sector. The founders understood that “perfect” is unattainable, charging us with the pursuit of a “more perfect Union”. Ultimately, social engineering is about taking action toward progress, whereas the pursuit of the “pure” policy is an excuse to do nothing. Which path do we want for America? Another question of social engineering that we will have to address if we are to tackle the great challenges of our time.

Jordan Twardy
Get Social

Jordan Twardy

Staff Writer at The Urbanist Dispatch
Jordan Twardy is an economic development professional working in metropolitan Detroit with a Master's Degree in Urban Planning from the University of Michigan.
Jordan Twardy
Get Social

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Jordan Twardy

Jordan Twardy is an economic development professional working in metropolitan Detroit with a Master's Degree in Urban Planning from the University of Michigan.

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