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Ladders of Abstraction: Why Stories Count

One of the privileges of managing the Values & Capitalism project is regularly encountering thoughtful blogging from writers I respect. Many of our bloggers graduated from evangelical colleges, including some campuses where we’ve recently hosted events, and all of us are writers in our twenties or thirties who share a heart for reconnecting morality and free enterprise. We don’t always succeed, but our goal is writing in a language and tone our peers appreciate.

Along the way, we occasionally stumble upon insights. This week, Marvin Olasky of World Magazine spoke by phone with our group, and he offered a big idea for improving our writing: the Ladder of Abstraction.

The Ladder of Abstraction was created in 1937 by S.I. Hayakawa, and his key concept became popular over the next two decades. If we think of a ladder, on the bottom we have specific details and particulars: my sister Andrea drives a black 2009 Volkswagen Jetta. Moving up the ladder in stages of abstraction, we might have Volkswagens, then transportation, then the fact that a car is an asset, and then perhaps finally the broad notion of mobility or “having social options.” Like Aristotle (unlike Plato), we move from particulars toward the abstract.

When discussing public policy, it is tempting to speak only in broad categories—say, of principles involved in reforming welfare in 1996: work, marriage and temporary assistance. But rather than talking in abstract terms alone, far more compelling is to move up and down the ladder, so that policy recommendations prioritize real people and real needs, not just general principles. After all, Olasky reminded us, the biblical narrative on balance “is more Hebraic than Greek, since the majority of Scripture—particularly the Old Testament—is filled with historic, earthy detail.” We bloggers should learn from this fact.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Olasky had a couple of case studies in mind. One is best-summarized by a sobering piece he penned 13 months ago, on the 5-year anniversary of the death of 4-year-old Rebecca Riley, whose Boston parents drugged her—their own daughter—in order to receive additional Supplemental Security Income (SSI) monies. As Olasky describes, Boston Globe reporter Patricia Wen gathered true stories to shine light on what motivates particular SSI recipients. By drawing upon real-life examples, policy wonks who call for reforms that differentiate lifestyle poverty from catastrophic poverty go farther with their arguments.

In directing our attention to personal stories, Olasky argues a point that has animated AEI scholars for decades: on-the-ground data deserves ongoing, careful attention. “Getting policy right” in one generation may not look identical in future decades—because times and cultures change. As we once again approach negotiations this spring about the debt-ceiling, instead of discussing in the abstract the future costs of Social Security or Medicare, we should link entitlement reforms to specific costs anticipated for particular Gen Xers and Millennials—showing with human faces that sacrificial entitlement changes are entirely in our national interest.

It will take compelling stories to make this case, and we should continuously check our guiding public policy principles against the daily experiences of our fellow citizens. A recent pair of responses by Arthur Brooks and by Charles Murray to Nicholas Kristof’s NYT column describing the unintended consequences of antipoverty policies reflected this insight. Liberal or conservative, we all owe it to our fellow citizens to debate and argue public policy with moral considerations about fellow Americans squarely in mind.

In this New Year, it is tempting to passively watch state officials “make man the measure of all things” in ways that discount real-life experiences and policy costs that my generation will someday be required to pay for. If we want once again to see the organic connections between values and capitalism, specific illustrations that draw on true, personal stories will be a critical part of making the case.

While it may be true enough (as the famous phrase goes) that “the plural of anecdote is not data,” neither is abstract data alone sufficient to win friends to our cause. After all, if Jesus repeatedly taught in parables, telling down-to-earth stories that lead to enduring insights, ought not his followers take a lesson from the master?