Governments Can Change People’s Values: A Briefing on Policy Feedback

January 2014
Briefing paper by Eivind Hoff-Elimari

It’s sometimes said that in countries such as the US or UK, it would be electoral suicide for politicians to advocate socialist policies which were once politically mainstream, while neoliberal policies, which were once deeply unpopular, are now defended across the political spectrum. What leads to these broad swings in the public acceptability of different political programmes?

One contributory factor may be “policy feedback” – the phenomenon by which public policies, advanced while a government is in power, help to shift citizens’ “common sense”, thus helping to strengthen support for subsequent policies aligned to the same political programme. Cultural values may play a role in such feedback processes. So, for example, living with a national health service (free at point of delivery, irrespective of ability to pay) may help to consolidate values of equal access and social justice, strengthening support for other policies rooted in these values. By the same token, introducing charges in order to access aspects of the health service could help to erode support for these values and weken public support for other public policies that uphold them.

Researcher Eivind Hoff-Elimari explored these ideas in collaboration with leading academics working on values, publishing this peer-reviewed paper. He wrote this short briefing for Common Cause as a summary of his research.

this if...

  • You’re interested in the evidence that public policy influences people’s values and their future support for particular political programmes.
  • You’re interested in debates about shifting the overton window.

Key Takeaways

  1. This research project found that there is a strong positive correlation between the values priorities of governments and that of the electorate.
  2. The values expressed by governments can exert important influence on the value priorities of the public.
  3. These insights can be helpful in designing strategies which consider how society’s overall values can be rebalanced in order to better prioritise intrinsic values.

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