Sign in or create an account

| Forgot Password?

9- How Understanding Politics Helps in Policy

Posted on

9. How Understanding Politics Helps in Policy

Eric O’Keefe, Chairman and CEO, Sam Adams Alliance



This is the most dynamic time since the Founding for political reformers in America. Millions of Americans have awakened to government threats to our basic liberties. But what should they do? How can they engage effectively to change the system?


We have regular elections, but do we have representative government? Rasmussen Reports tells us that only 11 percent of voters believe Congress is doing a good job, and just 21 percent think the federal government has the consent of the governed!


Both parties have participated in a binge of government expansion. What’s a voter to do? What is a reformer to do? How can people drive positive change given our current system? That is a much bigger question than policy questions about health care, climate change, or tax law.


The first requirement for a reformer is to understand the system as it is. And when we take a look, we find that incumbents and other government employees are thriving. For them, these are boom times in income and influence. So why should they change anything? Unless we cha nge their incentives, they will not change their behavior.


Millions of frustrated Americans are demanding answers to basic questions; there has never been more hunger for explanations about how our system really works and how we can change it.


There are direct and indirect approaches to policy reform. Broadly speaking, we can:


• Change incentives to alter how the system works. (For example, organize to hold politicians accountable with citizen engagement and primary election challenges.)


• Protect people who are circumventing the system. (For example, the Institute for Justice’s efforts to use constitutional litigation and block attempts to regulate homeschooling.)


• Legislate improved policies. (For example, enact lower taxes and health care reform that increases consumer choice.)



I have tried many approaches to promoting liberty in the last 30 years, including working for a third political party, initiating term limits and spending limits, and promoting school choice in state legislatures.


The third party effort failed because our winner-take-all elections drive us to having only two major parties, and the names of those parties are now cemented into numerous state and federal laws. And while the Republican and Democratic labels do not convey anything consistent today, political reformers can run under either label and bring new life and principles to those labels. Had I first studied the history and details of our political system, I would not have spent three years working for a third party.

Spending limit initiatives ran into a buzz saw of hostility from the tax-eating forces, and they used obstruction, lies, and litigation to kill this baby in the cradle.

And efforts to legislate broad school choice legislation have faced persistent opposition from the many moneyed interests that benefit from the current failed system. The employees of the current system, the builders of expensive school buildings, and of course the politicians all enjoy this profligate system. If educating children were the real goal of public education, we would not have government managing the schools.


Good ideas do not win on their own. Good ideas do not necessarily prevail even after gaining wide support among opinion leaders. Bad policies persist because powerful people benefit from those bad policies. This insight is at the heart of Public Choice theory, a field that uses economic analysis to study the behavior of actors in the political sphere. To understand why changing government institutions is so difficult, an understanding of public choice is key. Actually changing those institutions is another story.


Fortunately, most paths to progress do not go through a government agency. The postal monopoly was never repealed, but because of FedEx, UPS, and email, our economy has been able to work around this obstacle. Broad school choice reform has failed in legislatures, but 1.5 million children have exited the system because of parents who chose homeschooling over government schooling.


Human history is full of examples of people increasing liberty by exiting a system or inventing a way around it. America was settled by Europeans exiting religious and economic oppression. Public policy reform is not limited to legislating for liberty. It should start with a thorough assessment of the system—how it works, why it leads to certain outcomes, and why it resists most reforms.


We may find that we can change incentives and outcomes without any legislation. For example, in the 19th century, private political parties enforced rotation in office through their convention nominations, and the average stay in Congress was under two terms. Then the Progressives ended private nominations with the direct primary. This escape from accountability set the stage for a century-long surge in the size of government.


Incumbents act like they own their offices, because functionally, most of them do. And we know that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” per Lord Acton. Incumbents almost never lose. Most districts are one-party districts, so most incumbents are entrenched in office. Political organizers have failed to respond to this situation with routine primary challenges—but those can be created without legislation, by political organizing, and that might restore the accountability that held government in check during the 19th century. Grassroots activists and organizers show great promise of seeing the wisdom of organizing outside the political parties to set the standard and hold politicians accountable.


There will always be people struggling for freedom with creative efforts to serve others and make a living. The Institute for Justice finds great examples of these people and uses constitutional arguments to protect them from regulatory abuse. Litigating for liberty can create policy reform by snuffing local regulations that violate state and federal constitutions.


In a complex and dynamic country with over 300 million people, we need experts and allies working in all policy areas.


But look carefully before you leap. If you get into part of the system that is thriving on the status quo, you may become very frustrated. If you advocate reforms before understanding who benefits from the current system, you may end up giving bad advice to your allies.


For maximum leverage, look past those who are just trying to support politicians or win elections. Look for people driving for long-term systemic change. There are a growing number of people and organizations working outside the system and looking for ideas and energy to revive liberty in this time of peril. They need your help.



Eric O’Keefe is chairman and CEO of the Sam Adams Alliance. Under his leadership, the Sam Adams Alliance (SAM) has established some of the most active and respected organizations in the freedom movement, including American Majority and the Franklin Center. SAM has also launched Judgepedia, Ballotpedia, and Sunshine Review,  Wikipedia-style websites that have had more than 19 million page views for their 128,000 pages of politically important information. He serves on the board of directors of the Institute for Humane Studies, the Center for Competitive Politics, the Citizens in Charge Foundation, and Wisconsin Club for Growth. He authored the book Who Rules America, which won praise from Milton Friedman, and hosts a new podcast series, Engaging Democracy. When not promoting political reform, O’Keefe is a private investor residing in rural Wisconsin with his wife, Leslie Graves.

This entry was posted in Resources. Bookmark the permalink.