There's nothing worse that can happen to a young scholar at her first conference presentation than having one of the big founders of one's academic field sit in the first row and stare intently at her poor little PowerPoint presentation. This happened to me with Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, one of the most eminent figures in the field of contemporary communication studies.
“Opinion, queen of the world, is not subject to the power of kings; they are themselves her first slaves.”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1762, Lettre à d'Alembert sur les Spectacles
Protests are erupting in many parts of the world. Television screens are filled with images of restive citizens challenging power. Now, a debate has erupted on-line regarding whether or not the protests of today matter as well as the fabled efforts of movements past - Gandhi in India, King in the United States and so on.
“Global problems require global solutions,” a newspaper editorial recently asserted in its analysis of the current economic crisis. From a communication studies perspective, stressing a particular aspect of an issue – in this case, the global nature of the crisis -- is called “framing.” To further one’s position, advocates frame an issue by emphasizing some aspects of the phenomenon and deemphasizing others. Contrasting frames on economic issues have been ubiquitous in the media for some time. Compare, for example, the ways in which The Economist and CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight interpret economic realities. Given the current crisis, the framing battle is even more apparent. Protectionists might prefer to focus on a country’s deteriorating local job market and claim that the most pressing need is for government to protect domestic employment or a “domestic jobs frame.” In contrast, those who believe in free markets might argue that protectionist policies will lead to contracting national economies and that the solution is greater liberalization or a “free trade frame.”
'There can be no public without full publicity in respect to all consequences which concern it. Whatever obstructs and restricts publicity, limits and distorts public opinion and checks and distorts thinking on social affairs. Without freedom of expression, not even methods of social inquiry can be developed. For tools can be evolved and perfected only in operation; in application to observing, reporting and organizing a
As one observes the practice of policy in many contexts - including policy responses to the current global financial crisis - it is amazing to see how many expert advisers still see policy making and policy execution as a matter of command or the crude manipulation of incentives. Force relies on the coercive powers of the state: if you want citizens or groups of them to do something simply insist on compliance, and deploy the full apparatus of state power. Failing that, you manipulate incentives, especially financial incentives and citizens will fall in line. Expert systems are comfortable with either approach because each is something they understand and can easily deploy. And, to be fair, you can make and introduce policies by using force or manipulating incentives. Then you wait and see how far those approaches take you. But there is one big lesson coming out of policy studies: force and the manipulation of incentives can only take you so far.
“Effectiveness in aid is also effectiveness in governance”, said Mark Nelson, senior operations officer at the World Bank Institute (WBI) during a recent panel discussion on the progress-to-date of the
’Nothing appears more surprising to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as FORCE is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.The soldan of EGYPT, or the emperor of ROME, might drive his harmless subjects, like brute beasts, against their sentiments and inclination. But he must, at least, have led his mamalukes, or praetorian bands, like men, by their opinion.’
David Hume, Of the First Principles of Government, 1741
One of the major features of public discussion around the current global financial crisis is that the language of macro-economics is dominant. Different theories of macro-economics are being used to shape policy prescriptions, and these prescriptions are being shouted at policy makers. I suppose policy makers have to take Macro-economics 101 in order to be effective in their roles. Which is fine. But what about citizens?
'If it be true that all governments rest on opinion, it is no less true that the strength of opinion in each individual, and its practical influence on his conduct, depend much on the number which he supposes to have entertained the same opinion. The reason of man, like man himself, is timid and cautious when left alone, and acquires firmness and confidence in proportion to the number with which it is associated. When the examples which fortify opinion are ancient as well as numerous, they are known to have a double effect. In a nation of philosophers, this consideration ought to be disregarded. A reverence for the laws would be sufficiently inculcated by the voice of an enlightened reason. But a nation of philosophers is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato. And in every other nation, the most rational government will not find it a superfluous advantage to have the prejudices of the community on its side.'
James Madison, The Federalist Papers, No 49.