NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Elected Official Must Lead, Not Bend to Will of Public

October 13, 2011

Governing by public opinion is admirable, but not when it's at the expense of sound policy.  While this may seem to be a paradox within a democratic nation (in which "good" policy is all-too-often equated with the policy most people think best), it is most assuredly not.  Political leaders are chosen by the people, but this is not to say that they must sacrifice their decision-making to the will of the public, shepherded by common will.  Rather, they must do what they were elected to do: lead, says Henry I. Miller, the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at the Hoover Institution.

Decisions not to lead the public, but to follow them, are being made throughout the federal government in all areas of policymaking.

  • A recent example was U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk's statement that the United States would not seek additional free trade agreements because reliable polls show that Americans are unsure about their net benefits.
  • The accuracy of the polls is not in question here, but rather their value.
  • Economic theories and compelling empirical evidence explain that free trade, by enabling specialization and augmenting productivity, is unquestionably good for any nation.
  • With this in mind, why should undeniably "good" public policies be avoided simply because the majority of the public is unsure about them?

This question begs further inquiry: if a policy is good, why would so much of the public be unsure or even have negative feelings about it?  The answer, which is especially true in areas in which the average person has little firsthand knowledge, can be seen in two separate phenomena.

  • The first, the information cascade, allows misconceptions and false information to gain popular acceptance among the public because they are repeated often and loudly enough to gain traction.
  • The second, called "rational ignorance," explains that people will choose not to learn the truth about something if they believe that they will gain little by doing so.

Bearing these two phenomena in mind, the crux of the issue comes to the forefront: leaders must lead the public to the best policies possible, as the public, if left to its own misconceptions, will often settle for subpar options.  People require leadership; not poll-watchers.

Source: Henry I. Miller, "Poll Dance," Hoover Institution, September 21, 2011.

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