Sharing good ideas is the American way

Published 5:43 pm Tuesday, May 7, 2019

By Lisa B. Nelson

Public policy does not come about as result of a battle between good and evil. It may make for better copy to explain it that way, putting one side in black hats and the other in white — but that’s not reality. All over America, people of earnest sentiment work together searching for good ideas.

State legislators, who are a critical part of the policy-making mix, are most interested in what works. They’re constantly on the lookout for the next new, best approach to addressing the many problems that plague their nation and their constituencies.

Where an idea comes from is almost never as important as its potential impact. There are some, however, who, because they can’t win a debate on the merits, disparage the process by which some reforms are developed and promulgated. They cast suspicion where instead there should be a celebration of the democratic process at work. Stakeholders coming together to resolve conflict is the essence of the American democratic tradition as it developed from the start.

People coming together to confer and consider policy options and, if they come up with good ones, sharing them is a way of doing business as old as the country itself and as American as apple pie. It’s not pernicious as some would have it. It’s the democratic process at work, and the sharing of ideas through policy papers, academic studies, and model legislation is beneficial to us all as it allows policy makers to have the fullest range of inputs available when considering potential solutions.

The voice of the stakeholder matters. The centrally planned economic model, discredited just about everywhere except at some of the nation’s most elite universities, doesn’t work. The deleterious impact it has on incentives is one reason it fails whenever it’s tried. That it chokes off the flow of information economists have identified as being vital to a free economy is another.

What Friedrich Hayek, winner of the 1974 Nobel Prize for Economics said about information’s role in a constantly changing world is just as true for the development of public policy as it is in setting prices. There is no one central repository of all information. Knowledge is spread out among many people, across different sectors of the economy and society. Developing the best solutions to problems both long- and short-term requires bringing them together.

This does not mean, as some portray it, the best policies are developed behind closed doors. Bringing stakeholders together with policymakers allows for the real-world impact of proposals under consideration to be discussed while they are still potentialities rather than established fact. It’s an approach that saves time and money — and sometimes jobs and family incomes — and allows for those with relevant experience to have input where and when it counts.

It’s a rigorous process. Being something of a negotiation, it has built-in safeguards. The competition between constituencies gathered around the table, each of which wants to get its point across prevents any one stakeholder from dominating the discussion. That’s part of what the state legislators bring to the process. They act as the final arbiters of what might work, what doesn’t, and how heavy a load the politics of the issue will bear.

Legislators focus on what they know best: their constituencies. And once this deliberative process produces an idea, its only natural some might want to share it with legislators in other states. Hence the development of what’s been called “model policy” and legislative exchange.

On balance it results in good legislation being copied in different states — not because it’s a concession to special interests, but because it works. Welfare reform, the most successful social policy achievement in half a century, started out as a state level project with ideas being shared among mayors and governors and state legislators. Much needed reforms in education like parental choice and charter schools have gotten a boost from the model legislation approach as have criminal justice and civil asset forfeiture reform.

All these ideas and more are good and should be shared. No one should have to reinvent the wheel every time. As Washington Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, a Democrat, recently put it in a tweet, “Is there something inherently bad about model bills? A good idea in California may well be a good idea in Washington. The point is progress, not creativity.”

Amen to that.

LISA B. NELSON is the chief executive office of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization bringing state legislators and stakeholders together to develop public policy beneficial to the free market and individual liberty.