Aspirations and Policies

Political rhetoric tends to obscure the difference between aspirations and policies.  Aspirations are goals people would like to achieve, whereas policies are the means for achieving them.  For example, the Obama administration has mandated automobile fuel efficiency standards that require a fleet average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.  This is an aspiration, not a policy.

An example of a policy would be a requirement that passenger cars have engines with displacements no greater than 1.6 liters, or an increase of $2 per gallon in federal motor fuel taxes to encourage conservation.  Policies state what will actually be done to try to further a goal, perhaps in addition to stating of what the policies hope to accomplish.

You will notice, as campaign season is upon us, that political rhetoric is mostly about aspirations, and rarely about policies.  Political candidates talk about problems with the status quo, and their aspirations for improving things.  They talk about what they want to accomplish, but not what policies they favor for accomplishing their aspirations.

The reason is that everyone can agree the status quo is not ideal, so calls to improve the status quo receive widespread support.  Hope and change.  Just don’t be specific about what policies will drive that change.  Lots of people will agree that things can be improved, but fewer people will agree that any specific policy will actually lead to improvement.  So, politicians talk in terms of aspirations rather than policies.

It is OK to be against current policies.  Political candidates can oppose Obamacare, for example.  But it is politically dangerous to offer specific policies to enhance or replace it.

Libertarian policies have trouble gaining widespread support because they are policies rather than aspirations.  Privatize the roads?  Do away with occupational licensure?  Those are policies that many people will oppose.  Reduce traffic congestion?  Give consumers the freedom to choose who they hire?  Those are aspirations that people will support.

Even less controversial policies, like giving families the freedom to choose which schools their children can attend, will meet with heated opposition.  But improving the quality of education is an aspiration that will find support.

Ultimately, political leaders need policies to implement their ideas, but to get elected in the first place, political candidates do better to campaign on aspirations rather than policies.

Libertarian aspirations should be political winners.  Most people are in favor of having more freedom, and when asked whether people would rather make their own choices, or have someone in government make their choices for them, how many people will choose the latter?  When asked whether people would prefer a less intrusive government or a more intrusive one, how many people will choose the latter?

One problem with advancing libertarian ideas in a democratic society is that libertarians focus their messages more on policies than on aspirations.  Rather than campaigning on “It’s morning in America” or “Hope and change,” they’re saying “Abolish the Fed.”  Politics is one area in which vague aspirations win out over concrete ideas.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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