Private lives and public policy

family beach sunsetA note to members of the Utah Senate and House of Representatives from Paul Mero, president of Sutherland Institute:

As I write this, I recognize I’m addressing a diverse audience. I recognize some legislators know me well, even personally. Other legislators don’t know me at all. I realize some legislators have high opinions of me and that other legislators have very low opinions of me.

Regardless of how well you know me or like me, we both have one thing in common: public policy. Creating public policy is what you do as legislators; and designing, shaping and influencing public policy is what my colleagues and I do at Sutherland Institute.

While I certainly look to be respected by legislators professionally – and I certainly want Sutherland Institute to be respected – I’ve never thought that my professional opinions would be considered more or less correct based on how well a legislator knows me personally. I believe a good idea is a good idea regardless of the messenger – although some messengers obviously can do the message harm.

To be more precise, I’ve never had the thought that if only a legislator really knew me personally, he or she would certainly know how serious, credible, passionate and thoughtful my opinions really are about the causes and issues I promote, let alone the correctness of my opinions.

My personal life and experiences are lessons to me, for sure. But I’ve never had the thought that my personal life and experiences make my professional public policy opinions any more or any less correct in the minds of policymakers. For instance, I’ve been my older sister’s legal guardian since 1984. She’s disabled. She lives with me and has for most of my adult life. She’s on Medicaid. Does that personal fact make my professional opinions about Medicaid reform any more or any less correct for a policymaker?

I can carry this theme on and on. My parents divorced when I was 14. And, while I certainly have learned many life lessons from that experience, does that personal fact make my professional opinions about divorce policy any more or any less correct in a policymaker’s mind? I have a male cousin who has struggled with homosexuality. I have an African-American sister. I married when I was 18 and joined the LDS Church when I was 20, but smoked lots of marijuana in my teens and was raised without religion. Do any of those personal facts make my professional policy opinions about “gay rights,” race relations, religious freedom or drug use any more or any less correct for a policymaker?

I know how those personal experiences have influenced my life. My question is how do those personal experiences make my professional opinions any more or any less correct for others?

I raise this question, in this way, time and context – and as a professional courtesy – because legislative session after legislative session I witness special interest group after special interest group parade a host of life’s casualties before legislative committees as if personal experiences made anyone’s testimony more or less correct. Just this past Wednesday evening, the LGBT community, with Senators Urquhart and Dabakis as hosts, shared their personal experiences about same-sex-related discrimination as a tool to “soften hearts” of legislators and influence passage of a statewide nondiscrimination law. The LGBT community can read public opinion polls: People who know a person struggling with homosexuality are vastly more likely to support “gay rights.” But do those personal experiences make their professional opinions about the proposed legislation any more or any less correct?

Speaking professionally, I hope not.

Clearly, the advantage in politics goes to the emotional appeal – not reason, not need, not principle, not fact and not the common good. Understandably, few elected officials don’t care about perceptions of their character. Few want to be viewed as cold-hearted. That state legislators in Utah hold to principle and the common good as well as you do is, frankly, remarkable and highly commendable in this day and age.

But setting aside political theatrics, I wonder if this tendency to project personal experience onto public policy has to do with the ability to empathize. In other words, if I just knew a person who suffered the trauma of child abuse, my professional opinion of child abuse somehow would be more correct. Elizabeth Smart, for instance, suffered horrible abuse at the hands of a non-family member. Words don’t exist to describe the pain of her personal experience. But, just as an example, with all respect to her, does her experience make her opinions about child abuse any more or any less correct? Should legislators reasonably defer to her personal experience about child abuse rather than maintain professional standards of policymaking – if, indeed, those two factors disagree? (Not saying they do.)

These are delicate but important questions for policymakers as the free world around us continues to crumble – a critical time when mortality seems to be taking a greater and greater toll on all of us blessed with freedom. The human experience is different from private lives in scale. Prudent policymakers wisely consider human experience. Imprudent policymakers, in my opinion, unwisely bend public policy to the diversity of private lives. There is a reason we call the “common good” common and good.

As lawyers are wont to express, one is entitled to his or her own set of opinions but not to one’s own set of facts. Moving forward, perhaps we can agree that the lowest common denominator in public policy is to at least have our facts in common. Perhaps that low bar alone will be sufficient to drive prudent and responsible public policy in the advancement of a free society. My hope is that Utah legislators will continue to set a high bar for policymaking – a bar based not simply upon facts but also upon the common good, human happiness and principles of freedom. True empathy is found in personhood and what it truly means to be a human being – a very high standard not found simply by looking at mortality’s weaknesses and travails. It’s a standard for exceptionalism and hope for the human condition. And that standard for policymaking looks a lot different than the weakness and failure model.

Policymaking will only get more difficult in these trying times of family and cultural breakdown and fallout. God bless you for your service to this great state.