The pro-life activist Randall Terry has a famous quote that anyone who cares about politics should be familiar with: “He who frames the question wins the debate.”
Politicians are well aware of this fact, which is why they spend much of their time directing the political conversation into frameworks that benefit them. If they can get us arguing over how best to “reform” the education system, for instance, there will be little discussion about the bigger question of whether education should be handled by the state at all. It doesn’t really matter how the reform conversation goes after that. The framing that every reform combatant implicitly buys into grants that education should be handled by the state. The educational establishment wins before a single shot is even fired.
Another way politicians like to influence the framing of debates in their favor is with regulations. A few examples will help to illustrate how this works.
Minimum Wage Laws
There has been a vigorous debate in recent years over how high the minimum wage should be. Though some say it should be higher and others say it should stay where it is or even go down, most people accept the idea that some minimum wage is necessary, and that the only important conversation is figuring out where to set it.
The critical reframing, of course, is to challenge that assumption. The debate we need to be having is whether a minimum wage should exist at all.
But how is the minimum wage an example of politicians framing the debate in their favor? Think about what problem the minimum wage is trying to solve, and most importantly, who is being implicitly blamed for that problem. The problem is that many poor people can’t afford a basic standard of living. The people being implicitly blamed are their employers.
But why should the employer be blamed for what is essentially a mismatch between the income of workers and the cost of living? Why not blame the cost side for being too high? After all, a wage of five dollars per hour would be more than enough if the cost of living were lower by a factor of ten.
Maybe it’s the grocery stores and landlords that are charging too much rather than the employers paying too little. Or maybe the blame lies with the government. Maybe the real problem is that government intervention in the economy has made the cost of living soar, and that’s why the poor can’t afford a basic living.
If that’s true—and it seems quite likely that it is—then the blame for this problem should be directed at the government for making things so expensive, not at employers for paying too little.
The politicians can’t have that, of course. They want to be seen as the saviors, not the problem causers—the heroes, not the villains. So, what do they do? They find a scapegoat in the form of the employer, who happens to be a rather effective one since there’s a general animosity toward employers anyways. “He is the reason you are starving,” the politicians tell us. “We will stand with the poor and downtrodden by forcing him to pay a ‘fair wage.’”
Never mind that they are the reason the cost of living is out of reach for so many. It is always the employer’s fault. It is the employer who must pay more and more whenever the government makes life more expensive.
Rent Control and Consumer Protection
Many other regulations follow a similar pattern of deflecting blame from the government. Take rent control. The problem is that many people struggle to pay their rent. The proposed solution is a cap on rental rates. The people being implicitly blamed under that approach are the “greedy” landlords (another favorite scapegoat). The people actually to blame are, of course, the politicians and bureaucrats, who have set up a web of zoning laws and land-use regulations that put a major check on supply and thus push prices far above what they would be in a free market.
Consumer protection regulations work in much the same way. The problem is that corporations sometimes deliver poor-quality products and services. The proposed solution is regulations on quality. The people being implicitly blamed are business owners. Now, it’s true that business owners don’t always conduct their businesses ethically. But again, consider how the government might be at the root of this problem.
In many industries, the government actively restricts entry with tariffs, IP laws, licensing, and such, protecting established firms from competition. That competition is likely the key to driving bad firms out of business. The solution, then, is not to add even more regulations that ostensibly protect consumers, but to deregulate the industry so that monopolistic producers can’t get away with bad products and services.
Challenging How Issues Are Framed
The key thing to notice is that there is an accusation of culpability implicit in every regulation. If a regulation is aimed at you, it must be because you are the one causing the problem.
In reality, it is often the politicians causing the problem, and the regulation is just a convenient way for them to deflect blame. And it’s surprisingly effective. Politician A argues we should regulate employers, landlords, and business owners one way. Politician B insists we should regulate them another way. Everyone picks a side, but the most important battle is already lost because the idea that group X is the problem and that regulating them is the solution has been conceded by both sides from the get-go.
It is incumbent upon those of us who know where the blame truly lies to call this out, not only with the regulations mentioned above but wherever it happens. Practice looking for blame deflection with every policy you come across. Ask yourself, what’s the problem this is attempting to solve, and who is being implicitly blamed? Consider how other actors (often the government) might be the real culprits and how in light of that fact a completely different approach might be called for.
Above all, don’t concede the framing. If we are content to debate the trivialities of the day and don’t insist on fundamentally redirecting blame back to the government when that’s where it rightfully belongs, we’ve already lost.