Despite evidence to the contrary, President Bush refuses to revise his views and policies towards Iran. So what else is new? Consistently his administrations’s disregard for data demonstrates the triumph of ideology over fact-based foreign policy and presidential decision-making. Vice-President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld advocated war strategies contrary to what their generals recommended, and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales declared voter fraud a national emergency despite proof to the contrary that it was a problem. And in their campaigns, presidential candidates such as Rudy Guliani spout off false facts or drool out statements with blatant disregard for the truth.
Were Bush the only public figure to let ideology blind him to the facts one could describe it as a tragedy. However, this disregard for the use of social science evidence in guiding policy making runs deeper, making it more of a tragic feature of American politics that demonstrates a crisis of governance in this country.
A central debate in public administration is over what role social science evidence should have in guiding the making of policy. On one side there are those such as former New York Senator and scholar Daniel Patrick Moynihan who contended that: "The role of social science lies not in the formulation of social policy, but in the measurement of its results" Policy making is about values, not facts, and public officials should be guided by the latter when making law. To the contrary, others such as former OMB and CBO director Alice Rivlin argue for more experimentation and gathering of facts and research when constructing public policy. In the spirit of George Santayana, we will forever make bad public policy and enact programs that do not work if we forget the past. It is possible to make better policy if social science research informs what works and what does not.
The failure to engage in fact-based or social science-guided policy making results in the production of stupid public policies and the promotion of political myths. Across America state and local governments consistently borrow ideas from one another, often unreflectively and untested, and enact them as the latest fix to solve some problem. Tragically, most of the ideas don’t work. During the 1990s local governments got hooked on building aquariums as the panacea of tourism, looking at Sheds in Chicago or the New York Aquarium as success stories. Most of the aquariums bombed. Cities ignored how a flooded market decreases their appeal and novelty or how expensive it is to build impressive ones that work as tourism magnets.
But aquariums are only the tip of a large iceberg of stupid policies enacted and myths acted upon, despite evidence to the contrary. Overwhelming evidence demonstrates that tax incentives to encourage business relocations are ineffective and inefficient, enterprise zones and sports stadium subsides are bad tools for economic development, and that the building of most major convention centers has failed to revitalize urban centers. Immigrants are in fact a net positive impact on the U.S. economy and do not take jobs away from citizens, welfare migration for higher benefits is negligible, and the teaching of sex education and safe sex does not cause an increase in teenage sexual activity. Just like the Easter Bunny, all of these claims are just myths.
But despite evidence to the contrary, politicians continue to waste billions of dollars every year reenacting failed policies. Maybe it is because money and special interests drive politics, maybe because it is ignorance, or maybe those who most despise government push for the adoption of stupid policies so they can then claim that government is ineffective and therefore it needs to be dismantled. Whatever the reason, Bush’s Iran policy highlights a major flaw in much of American politics: Evidence? We don’t need no stinkin’ evidence!
David Schultz is a professor of public administration at Hamline University in St Paul, Minnesota. firstname.lastname@example.org