Insiders and Outsiders in the Public Policy World

Nancy LeTourneau offers a thoughtful reflection on Larry Summer’s advice to Elizabeth Warren about how the world of public policy actually works. Here is Warren’s recounting:

Larry leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice. I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People — powerful people — listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.

Nancy echoes BooMan in her advice to progressives:

in order for liberals to actually implement progressive public policy, we have to shed our comfort in being anti-establishment and learn what it means to become the establishment.

Warren’s case supports that point. Warren’s a player in the U.S. Senate and she makes a difference there. In contrast, there is a type of leftist that will criticize those currently in power yet lack the courage to throw their own hat into the ring. People who constantly criticize public policy but never accept responsibility to implement a policy alternative when offered the chance eventually — and I think deservedly — come to be widely ignored.

That said, policy insiders often owe a debt to bomb-throwing outsiders. Would LBJ have been able to pass such strong civil rights legislation if MLK weren’t leading marches in the streets? I doubt it. Nutty, callow outsiders are disregarded, but master outsiders like King who can rally the masses give reform-minded insiders far more running room than they would otherwise have. If the windows of the proverbial smoke-filled room look out onto a hotbed of social rest, the power structure doesn’t have as much incentive to listen to reform-minded insiders, regardless of how much establishment cred they may have.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.