The American Fear of Foreign Ideas

Inception, 2010; Warner Bros.

Proof of the reliability and permanence of a well-formed idea can be found all across human history. In Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece, historians Kurt Raaflaub, Josiah Ober, and Robert Wallace describe the democracy of fifth-century Athens as “a remarkable system… capable of mobilizing extraordinary citizen involvement, enthusiasm, and achievement, enormously productive and at the same time potentially greatly destructive.” Nearly 2,000 miles northwest and eight centuries later, the Magna Carta seeded the Western conception of individual liberty and due process, inspiring the creation of parliaments and representative governments all across the globe. The Magna Carta would also shape Western views on private property, a fundamental concept in the field of economics. The 18th century political philosopher Adam Smith explored this space in The Wealth of Nations, laying the groundwork for the laws of supply and demand that would bring billions of people out of poverty, including 700 million Chinese citizens during the past 30 years. Despite their origins, few today would argue against the merits of democracy and private property. How much human flourishing would we have forgone had we rejected democracy as an insignificant export from a small country off the Mediterranean, or private property as the usurpation of a people on the authority of their king?

In the United States, however, certain constituencies argue against ideas solely on the basis of their birthplace. One such debate is the viability of a robust American welfare state. Its detractors — mostly subscribers to American conservative ideology — argue that demographic differences between homogeneous European states and the racially, economically, and culturally diverse United States makes such transplantation impossible. “Just because universal health care and government-funded college works over there,” the argument goes, “doesn’t mean that it’ll work over here.” This line of reasoning seems intent on shutting down debate, relying on obscurantism as a moat to protect detractors from fleshing out their objections.

The civilizational project demands of us two things: first, that we not reject ideas solely on the basis of their geography, risking cutting ourselves off from the global laboratory of political thought. Towards this goal, we should look at what comparative public policy and policy transfers have to say on these issues. Second, the civilizational project requires that we view the facts with as much nuance as possible. History is full of examples where irresponsible and haphazard redrawing of borders, elections in countries with failing institutions, and foreign adventures to liberate peoples have had disastrous results. This second point, however, is not vindication of the detractors mentioned earlier. Their retorts are meant to stop conversation, not identify objections, reveal blind spots, or correct hubris. Implementing foreign ideas requires careful and deliberate comparisons, as well as an understanding of what makes policies succeed or fail.

The comparative method used by today’s public policy researchers relies on techniques developed centuries ago. The philosopher John Stuart Mill formalized a system of reasoning by induction, put forth in his 18th century work, A System Of Logic, Ratiocinative And Inductive, that looks at the various conditions of phenomena and analyzes them on the basis of the differences between those conditions. Mill offers five sets of rules, or canons, to reason through evidence and help infer the truth of a proposition. Considering X as an antecedent of x, there is a relationship between A and a if:

A B C precedes a b c, and A D E precedes a d e (The Method of Agreement)

A B C precedes a b c, and B C precedes b c (The Method of Difference)

A B C precedes a b c, and A D E precedes a d e, while B C precedes b c, and B C D precedes b c d (The Joint Method of Agreement and Difference)

A B C together precede a b c, while separately, B precedes b and C c (The Method of Residues)

A B C precedes a b c, and a change in A in A B C precedes a change in a in a b c (The Method of Concomitant Variation)

These methods of reasoning, explains political scientist Kuhika Gupta, are precisely how scholars of comparative public policy analyze institutions, their similarities, and their differences to answer how and why policy outcomes diverge:

if you have two systems that are similar but diverge on the dependent variable, you should look to the small number of differences in order to establish the reason for the divergence. By contrast, if you have two systems that are very different, but have experienced similar policy outcomes, you should look to the small number of similarities as a potential explanation for their similarity

Beyond the study of policy systems, their differences, and their outcomes, policy researchers also seek to understand how policies from one system translate to another.

A 2012 paper by Dr. Diane Stone of the University of Western Australia surveys the literature on policy transplantation and its four conduits: policy diffusion, transfer, convergence, and translation. Policy diffusion involves the communication of a policy innovation via a certain channel between members of a social system. Generally, internal power and socio-cultural dynamics, Stone argues, will have the most influence on whether policies diffuse from one system to another. Policy transfers, a more deliberate process where knowledge is passed from one setting and used to develop policies in another, uses five modalities: the broad transfer of policy through ideals or goals (i.e. UN Millennium Development Goals), the creation of institutions structured in similar fashion to existing institutions, the transfer of specific “regulatory, administrative or judicial tools” such as transport or higher education policies, ideas and ideologies, and the transfers of personnel and their sharing of institutional knowledge to their host organizations. Next, policy convergence occurs by way of some external pressure, taking place when systems adapt their policies so as to arrive at some harmony with another system; the European Union, for example, demands certain structural conditions of candidate states prior to accession. Finally, policy translation arises from the creation of policy solutions after policymakers have either previously internalized lessons from elsewhere or are part of a broader ‘policy culture’ with shared solutions.


While advising the post-communist state of Poland, Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, then-economic adviser to the Solidarity Party, was asked what economic reforms the newly liberated country should take. Sachs responded by urging for the “rapid transition to ‘normal’ capitalism, on the model of Western Europe.” What followed was a series of market-based reforms known today as “shock therapy.” Five years of observation have shown Poland, as well as the Czech Republic, another Soviet annex, to have outperformed their peers after having implemented these reforms. Sachs saw the globalized world as an indispensable training ground for newly liberalized countries, and offered three reasons for proceeding rapidly to a “normal” capitalist order:

First, the global system provides an invaluable road map for reforms. Second, the global system provides an opportunity to borrow technology, capital, and management techniques, to help catch up economically after decades of falling behind. Third, with many other countries and regions also trying to rejoin the world economy, the post-Communist countries are in international competition for capital, foreign direct investment, and export markets.

But the success of “shock therapy” also had much to do with the policy’s reception by the Polish people. Being eager participants made Poles more receptive to the changes necessary to rejoin the European economy. “They saw the revolutions in their countries as the opportunity to rejoin the mainstream of Western Europe,” says Sachs. “The great rallying cry of 1989 was ‘Return to Europe.’” Having the people on-board, Sachs found, meant that the government had a mandate and a clear target. The Polish transition illustrates the importance of buy-in from institutions and citizens, and corresponds with later research on the subject of policy success.

In a 2010 paper, political scientists Dr. David Marsh and Dr. Allan McConnell outlined three dimensions of policy success: process success, programmatic success, and political success. The first dimension, process success, may be assessed by observing the legitimacy of the choice-generation process, the passage of legislation, political sustainability so as to obtain and preserve sufficient support from the various political coalitions, and whether the policies being implemented were newly generated or merely transferred from another system. Process success also requires transparency, given the importance of public legislative records and involvement from stakeholders in policy deliberations and analysis. The second dimension, programmatic success, divides into four subgroups: operational success asks whether objectives were met, outcome success assesses the desired outcome of the policy, resource success determines whether resources were efficiently used, and the success of actors and interests observes who benefited from the policy. The third dimension of success, political success, seeks to assess the popularity of the policy, and whether it helped the electability and credibility of the government implementing it.


Decision after disastrous decision, the lead-up to the Iraq War, as well as its initial execution, are salient examples of policy failure. Among the numerous abortions of public policy were two decisions by US planners, watershed moments detailed in a 2010 paper by Dr. James Pfiffner of George Mason University, that jeopardized American success in the country: first, the de-Ba’athification of the government, which barred anyone who had served within the top echelons of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party from service in the new Iraq government, and second, the disbanding of the Iraqi Army. These two decisions were themselves preceded by other failures, such as using American experiences during World War II while occupying Japan and Germany as case studies for what to do during the Iraq occupation. A CIA intelligence assessment, however, had concluded, and accurately predicted, adverse ethnic and tribal reactions to the invasion. “Had the accurate CIA intelligence judgments about the effects of Saddam’s fall been heeded by policy makers,” says Pfiffner, “they might have been more hesitant to de-Baathify the government and disband the Army.”

Iraq represents an extreme example of the consequences of ill-conceived policy. In a 2017 paper, Dr. Claire Dunlop surveys the literature to better flesh out the concepts of policy learning and policy failure. To define the concept of policy failure, Dunlop refers to McConnell’s prior work on policy dimensions: “technical and substantive deficiencies that prevent goals being reached (programme failure), or an inability to negotiate the policy process and translate an idea into reality (process failure), or partisan distortion of the policy (political failure).” Dunlop identifies three levels of analyses of policy failure: Micro-level failures occur in the realm of human cognition, often due to over-reliance on analogies, personality traits, inaccurate risk calculations, and poor leadership. Meso-level failures involve groupthink, contradictory interpretations of goals, resulting in failed implementations, and inter-group friction. Finally, macro-level failures involve young, weak, or unstable social and economic institutions. One particular example, the Western response to the financial crisis, illustrates the capacity of institutions “to dilute the power of the lessons that were drawn.” By failing to acknowledge the systemic problems brought to light by the crisis, institutions raised “fundamental issues of power and blame avoidance that recur in policy failure studies.”


No idea is simple when you need to plant it in someone else’s mind. Policy success, the evidence shows, has more to do with a detailed understanding of circumstances, peoples, and institutions. When armed with the understanding of what makes policies succeed, as well as what makes them fail, the fear of foreign ideas is irrational. A deliberate process of stakeholder engagement, awareness of the conditions on the ground, and a clear objective with defined outcomes are the best predictors of a policy’s success. Policy failures, on the other hand, can often be identified by a trail of other failures in their wake, such as rash decisions, poor planning, and hubris. Taking ideas that have had positive outcomes elsewhere and rigorously testing them through the standards outlined in the literature can reap benefits for many to enjoy. This may only happen, however, when ideas are not feared. Working through ideas, not cowering away from them, is the only way forward.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.