An excellent piece in the New York Times by Suzanne Mettler – Our Hidden Government Benefits – raised the issue of how many Americans seem unaware that the government benefits they receive are indeed government benefits. According to Mettler, a staggering 94% of welfare recipients think they do not receive state welfare.

The precise reasons for that in the US are complex. It is partly to do with the sometimes-private routes through which people receive state support, but it is also partly to do with our human capacity for double-think. It would thus be a mistake to think this is entirely an American disease. Throughout developed, welfare states, people simultaneously demand better pensions and public services while voting for parties that promise to cut such benefits. Equally, we say we are concerned about the environment, or decry the littering of beauty spots, yet make choices that ensure we remain addicted to resource-guzzling contraptions – and yes, I myself am a serial offender in this regard.

This is not just a ‘popular’ disease either. It’s a common feature of public service and political discourse too. In an often-overlooked 1991 book, Administrative Argument, Christopher Hood and Michael Jackson showed how much public policy proceeds not according to reasoned arguments and evidence but by the wielding of often-incompatible proverbs and nostrums, mental shortcuts that guide action. While the last Labour government in Britain tried to shift policy-making onto an ‘evidence-base’, it was frequently the case that the ‘evidence’ deployed was of extremely variable quality, while evidence can also be ignored if politically inconvenient, as the ructions over the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs demonstrated last year. 

There has been some good criticism of this drive for evidence-based policy making. Evidence for and against policy interventions can be hard to find because social phenomena often resist quantification; or because what counts as evidence depends on ideologies, interests, power relations, discourses and so forth.

Perhaps a more hopeful strategy is to use deliberative democracy. One of the aims of the deliberative democracy movement in policy practice has been to come up with ways of getting people to confront these inconsistencies, to reflect on their conflicting views and come to working agreements on ways forward. But it is also the case that, in an environment of doublethink, it can be hard to get at what people actually want. Behavioural scientists thus often argue that scholars and policy analysts should pay less attention to what people say, and more attention to what they actually do; in other words, they argue that talk, even deliberative talk, is “cheap”, and that agreements reached in deliberative forums go out the window when people re-enter the real world of power, interests, pressure, scarce time and resources.

Part of the solution to the “cheap talk” problem is to tie deliberative processes to action in some way – participants need to see that their talk, their agreements, have a real effect. And that has been one of the problems of deliberative processes thus far – too many are disconnected from real decision-making processes, or have impacts on the wider world that are hard for the casual observer to spot. Which is why I have always been so keen on tightening the links between citizen deliberation and government action, especially central government action, contrary to the current trend of celebrating local, small-scale action.

There’s a lot more that could be said. For some of my views on these issues, check out Deliberating in the Real World; or Graham Smith’s Democratic InnovationsFor more on Americans’ attitudes to welfare, check out this book by Christopher Howard (with thanks to Jurgen de Wispelaere and Archon Fung for the tips).