October 17, 2022
Policy advocates and political parties in the U.S. run into the hard reality of public opinion (aka voters) when they push ideas that limit options and choices.
Both parties take these limiting views on some issues while pushing freedom of choice on other issues. Some conservatives want to limit who you can marry and, at the extremes, what sorts of contraception you can use. Some liberals want to limit the types of cars you can drive, and, at the extremes, whether you can eat beef.
I’m leaving aside whether these arguments for limitations have any merit. The reality is, when you push a policy of restriction, you are going to run into strong opposition. It’s possible to successfully implement a restrictive policy, but if you can advocate for the same goals with fewer restrictions, you are more likely to succeed.
The Democratic party appears to be adapting to and acting on this realization in the climate bill that is making its way toward being signed as I’m writing this (August 2022). Whereas over many decades liberals have talked about climate policies in terms of restricting cars, fossil fuels, and certain behaviors, this bill is focused on creating abundant energy—but from clean, renewable sources instead of from carbon-emitting sources. It’s not a coincidence that this bill is easily the most impactful climate policy that has gotten through the U.S. political system, in part by gaining support from moderate Democratic Senators.
It’s not just climate policy. On housing, transportation, and other issues, policy wonks are beginning to act upon what some are calling an “abundance agenda.” The idea is that across many issues, liberals of old have often come across as scolds telling people what they can’t do. Abundance advocates believe that the better approach from both a policy and political perspective is to push for alternatives that reach goals without restricting choices. We need, and can build, more housing—to solve homelessness and high housing costs. We need and can build more transportation—both highways and trains. We need more doctors, to help lower the cost of health care.
Why does this work? Two reasons:
- In almost all cases, somebody is (or maybe lots of people are) happy with the status quo, and
- People hate losing what they have more than they value gaining something new.