Politics

A problem of labeling?

James Fallows has an interesting article in the Atlantic comparing the economic and cultural revitalization of two small American cities: ultraconservative Greenville, South Carolina and ultraliberal Burlington, Vermont.  Fallows notes that both cities pursued similar strategies based on long-term city planning by strong mayors and bureaucrats in city agencies.

But how could a conservative town like Greenville accept so much government interference in the local economy?

By ascribing it to the power of “public-private partnerships,” a term we heard many times each day. It was public-private partnerships that brought the big manufacturers to South Carolina, that made the downtown come alive, that are now supporting high-tech incubators in the city and science and engineering programs in the public schools.

There is a lesson in this for America. To wit: if we can find ways to name strategies so that they sound acceptable and soothe rather than raise hackles, we can get a surprising amount done. Had a politician labeled Greenville’s strategy “picking winners” or “industrial policy,” it would have been stillborn. As a series of public-private partnerships, it is a source of civic pride.

This raises an interesting question: could manifestly effective progressive economic policies be sold to conservatives by relabeling them “pro-business”? I am doubtful that changing labels alone would do much. Taking a cue from Dan Kahan‘s theory of cultural cognition, my guess is that the most significant factor in getting the conservative residents of Greenville to accept what are in substance progressive economic policies was the fact that the proposals came from local conservative leaders—people whom the conservatives of Greenville recognized as one of their own. If an outsider had come into town and proposed “public-private partnerships,” the proposal would most likely have been dismissed as “picking winners” by a different name.

 

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