Understanding Public Policy in the United States
Understanding Public Policy in the United States

Understanding Public Policy in the United States

Lead Author(s): Oren Levin-Waldman

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This book provides a survey of public policy in the United States.

Introduction--Policy in the American Context

Learning Objectives

  • Be able to understand the meaning of public policy and why it is a complicated process
  • Understand the complexities inherent to defining policy problems
  • Understand that policy tells us much about a society's culture and politics
  • Understand that competing strands in America's public philosophy leads to divergent directions for policy
  • Explain what the American political tradition implies about the American policy process and the shape of policy in America
  • Explain the different models of policy analysis and why those models are ultimately political

For more than four decades income inequality has been rising, which means that the gap between the top and the bottom has only increased. One reason for a growth in inequality is the oversupply of unskilled workers at the bottom of the distribution, with the result being to drive down wages. Meanwhile, an under-supply of skilled workers at the top of the distribution in an economy which increasingly requires greater skills and training only enables workers at the top to demand higher wages. In other words, because there are two economies — a highly skilled and highly paid economy at the top and a poorly skilled and poorly paid economy at the bottom — the result is a growing gap between the two. At one point in the nation’s history, government would have responded by doing nothing on the grounds that freedom and liberty meant that government should not interfere with decisions that individuals were free to make. If some chose to invest in themselves to acquire skills that would enable them to command higher wages, then surely they are entitled to whatever wages they have earned. At the same time, if others opted to go to work immediately upon graduating high school, they have nobody to blame but themselves and they are responsible for their own plight.  

 Because government has been actively involving itself in the economy in an attempt to help those in need since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the public has come to expect that government will respond to their needs. When government responds in whatever form, it is doing so according to what we often refer to as policy. On one level, a policy can be said to represent a solution to a problem. More fundamentally it represents a response to what is recognized as a problem in need of a response. Public policy, then, can be defined as a plan of action that reflects the collective will of the political community. Deborah Stone, for instance, defines public policy as communities trying to achieve something as communities. She offers two models: the Polis, a political community, which assumes both collective will and collective effort. And the market, which is an arena in which individuals pursue their objectives and make exchanges. The market begins with individuals and assumes no goals, preferences or intentions other than those held by individuals. 

 Membership in a community defines social and economic rights as well as political ones What makes a collection of individuals a community isn't only the defintional principle of specifying who's in and who's out, but is also mutual among members The sharing of burdens and bounty is the glue that holds people together. In the polis, the objective is to pursue the public interest, but how we define the public interest is an open question. One approach is to define the public interest as the summation of individual interests. Another approach is to say that there is a transcendent public interest. And yet, how we understand the public interest is a function of our values. Or the public interest is based on a shared consensus among members of the community. Arriving at that consensus, however, often proves to be a challenge, as no two people see things in the same way. Imagine the difficulty, then, in a country of millions where each is entitled to offer a view of what constitutes the public interest through a variety of channels.  

One channel for offering views of the public interest and attempting to arrive at a consensus is the polis. In the polis there must be cooperation. The polis is defined as a political community. Stone refers to the polis as the opposite of a market place where people exchange goods and services for money. And yet, a polis is political marketplace where people exchange ideas.  

The polis, then, can be with a community, and perhaps even multiple communities, and constitutes an arena in which these multiple communities may present ideas that can either advance their own respective interests or what they define as the public interest. Although a polis is driven by a public interest rather than profits which are characteristic of the market place, there is no established definition of what constitutes the public interest. Rather the public interest emerges through consensus in a political community that is democratic in that it allows all to participate in the process. Still, this makes for a very robust and difficult, if not an altogether impossible, process. 

  Public Policy 

 This book is about public policy. Policy is best defined as measures taken by a political community to address a problem affecting the political community. Policy assumes a variety of different forms. Its most basic form is that of regulation — restrictions on the actions that individuals can take in order to protect the health and welfare of others, or the larger public interest. It should be noted that policy and police have the same root because policy involves the use of the state’s police power, or its regulatory authority. Policy can also be more active in the form of programs intended to assist people. Policy can also be nothing more than a statement of governmental intent or principles, i.e. a public position on a particular issue. For policy to be effective, there does need to be a strong enforcement mechanism. In the case of regulatory policy that means that the state has to be prepared to impose penalties on those who don’t comply with policy. And in the case of programs that means that the state has to provide the funding for those programs so that the underlying policy will have teeth.  

Defining the Problem  

On a simple level it should be easy to identify a problem. After all, when something is wrong it is a problem. And yet, the issue is for whom something is a problem. If we return to our opening story, income inequality may be a problem for those at the bottom of the distribution, who because they are not affluent don’t have the same political clout as those at the top of the distribution. For those at the top of the distribution, income inequality is not perceived to be a problem because they are not lacking in anything. Here we would say the difficulty in defining the problem arises from how the problem so defined affects one’s interests. Still, there may be an ideological component here as well. 

 Ideologically speaking, those who espouse a free market ideology may not vew income inequality as a problem because in a free market place some will have more than others as a result of the decisions that they were free to make. If Carol opted to pursue an advanced technology degree and the result is she earns more than most, she is rightfully entitled to do so. And if Joyce opted to get a degree in English literature and the only job she can get is waiting tables at a fraction of the pay as Carol, then she has no basis upon which to claim that their unequal positions are in any way unfair. On the contrary, both are said to enjoy the agency which enables them to make free choices.  We might refer to this as the conservative position.  

The conservative tale, however, does not really address the complexity fully inherent to problem definition. What if Carol was the product of a superior school system which made it more likely that she would pursue an advanced technology degree? What if Jane was born into poverty and did not enjoy the same opportunities that would put her in a position to pursue Carol’s advanced technology degree? Their unequal positions are unfair because they were victims of circumstances that were unfair. We often refer to this as the liberal position which often maintains that individuals aren’t always responsible for the decisions that they made because a variety of obstacles may have existed that effectively blocked them from having true human agency. Moreover, if Carol was born into an affluent family that could afford to live in the community with the superior school system, she similarly isn’t responsible for her accomplishments. After all, if Carol has more, this according to the liberal position is simply the luck of the draw.  

There are perhaps a couple of ways to look at the policy process. The standard model of policymaking is often depicted in a flow diagram.    


Question 1.1

What is missing from the flow diagram?


The path from defining the problem to examining alternatives


A cost benefit analysis


The politics at each stage of the process


None of the above

It begins with problem definition. This is what Herbert Simon has famously referred to as a decision situation whereby a problem is being defined and explained in such a way as to justify a response or a decision as to what to do about the problem. After the problem has been defined, alternative approaches to solving the problem are identified. Each alternative is evaluated which includes a cost/benefit analysis to determine how effective and efficient it might be given the available resources. After which, a choice is made. This standard model can also be said to be characteristic of a rational decision making process. As rational actors we are able based on our agency to determine how we want to live our lives and/or what is in our best interests and then chart out a course that enables us to bring that determination to fruition. This means we chart that course based on costs and benefits. Costs and benefits, however, need not always be monetary ones.  

This model, also known as the rational actor model, assumes that policy for the most part is made on the basis of monetary costs and benefits. In simplified terms it is, but in the real world costs and benefits can include political and ideological costs and benefits which are considerably more difficult to measure. To complicate the process further, how we view a problem may be a function of our world views and how we see the world. If, for example, we believe in an ideology that individuals are responsible for their own actions and people are poor because individuals are lazy or they lack the necessary skills to make a living above the poverty line, then poverty as such is not going to be defined as a problem. It certainly won’t be defined as a societal problem as opposed to a personal failing.  For those who subscribe to an ideology of free markets, poverty is a natural byproduct of a free market place where some will be extremely wealthy, some will be extremely poor, and many others will simply fall in the middle.  

Even the term poverty as such is difficult to define. Most of us tend to define poverty as a lack of sufficient income. In the U.S. poverty is defined as having an income falling below a certain threshold given the number of people to feed in a household. In fact, the official U.S, poverty line was not developed by the Department of Health and Human Services, but the Department of Agriculture. The question was how much income would be needed to feed a family of four. In 2018, the poverty line for a family of four was $25,100, which in a technical sense means that one whose income is above that line is not officially defined as poor. This definition, however, does not take into account other factors such as the general cost of living, rent, transportation costs, and other costs based on geographic location.    

 Poverty, however, isn’t only defined as a matter of insufficient income. Economics Nobel laureate and philosopher Amartya Sen defines poverty as the deprivation of capabilities. By this he means the ability to use one’s human agency. This could obviously include skills. If one lacks the ability to earn a living above a certain income threshold, that person will no doubt be impoverished at least in terms of having an insufficient income. But it could also mean that the individual lacks the capability to grow as a person. Conservatives define poverty as moral failings. This idea traces back to a historic distinction made in Sixteenth Century England between the worthy and unworthy poor. The worthy poor were those who were poor through no fault of their own, and they included widows, orphans and the elderly. The unworthy poor were those who were poor because they were essentially lazy and had a moral character defect. Whereas the worthy poor would be treated with compassion, the unworthy poor would be treated harshly. In Sixteenth Century England with passage of the English Poor Laws, beggars were considered unworthy and would be subject to severe punishment. For the first offense, beggars might be subject to public floggings, and for the second they could be put to death.  

Under this model, the community, and the state by extension, did not owe the poor anything. On the contrary, it was the poor’s fault that they were poor. And yet, if poverty is viewed as an individual’s moral failing, then there is no real problem worthy of a policy solution. If, on the other hand, all poor are considered to be worthy because it isn’t their fault that they are poor, then the community has a moral obligation to offer support. This is referred to as the liberal position, which often maintains that people are victims of circumstances. Or stated another way, markets fail which means that not enough opportunity is provided to everybody to earn a living above the poverty line. People are poor because of market failure as well. When markets fail, government has a positive obligation to offer assistance to those who are poor through no fault of their own.  

On a simple level, this difference in world view demonstrates the difficulty in defining a policy problem or what Simon refers to as the decision situation. Whereas for liberals poverty is a problem that requires a policy response, poverty for conservatives is not a problem that justifies a policy response. On the contrary, policy could make things worse. If the response is to offer the poor assistance in the form of in-kind welfare payments, the poor are likely to eschew work and become dependent on the system.  

Even if poverty is recognized as a problem the question remains as to what exactly the nature of the problem is. Is it simply insufficient income? Or is it laziness and moral defect? If insufficient income, is it because the economy fails to supply sufficient jobs that pay above the poverty line? Or is it because individuals lack the requisite skills to command adequate wages? Even if workers are unskilled, is that because they lack the natural endowments that would enable them to acquire the requisite skills? Arguably, based on one’s ideological position, the question could be asked why society has a moral responsibility to help others. This then becomes a debate between libertarian who believe individual have no responsibilities except to themselves and communitarians who believe every individual has a responsibility to the larger community of which they are a part of.  

Most policy problems are common problems, which means that there is perhaps a consensus that they are issues that affect most, if not all of us.   

American Values  

Public policy isn’t just a question of solving societal problems, but solving societal problems in a cultural setting. In the American context, policy is formulated in a constitutional system characterized by separation of powers, rights, liberties, and a long standing anti-statist tradition. Policy in the U.S. is by definition reactive, in that it responds to problems, and it may not respond to all problems because our political system makes it very difficult to agree that a problem exists, let alone that something ought to be done about it.  

The U.S. has a deeply ingrained tradition of anti-statism, which means Americans have historically been jealous of government power. Because government could not be trusted coupled with an idea that the best government was the government that governed least, the framers of the American Constitution designed a system of limited government, which meant that it would be extremely difficult for government to respond to what we would typically call policy problems, unless they rose to crisis proportions. 


What should become clear from the clip on Federalist Paper # 51 is that by separating powers, government would only be able to govern through consensus. Because reaching consensus would be difficult across different branches of government, it would be difficult to govern. It would be difficult to govern because it would be difficult to reach agreement on anything. This would include defining the policy problem in the first place. But the more actors in the mix, the greater the difficulty in achieving a consensus. In fact, it is almost impossible to create policy because it is almost impossible to arrive at a consensus that policy is needed because there is no real consensus that a problem even exists. By talking about Separation of Powers and the limitations of federal authority, James Madison is almost suggesting that there is no need for policy at the national level. This, of course, feeds into the conservative position that when there are problems, government should do nothing. Doing nothing also constitutes a putative policy. At best it should only regulate when absolutely necessary. In a constitutional system, protection of individual rights, then, becomes a very delicate situation because the case for a regulation that will infringe the rights and liberties of others needs to be justified.   

To limit the reach of government, the Framers of the Constitution, of which Madison was a key player, settled on a plan of Separation of Powers. If power was divided between three branches of government, no one branch would have sufficient power to govern. Rather the cooperation of others would be need. The idea was certainly nothing new. Aristotle had talked about mixed constitutions consisting of democracy, expressed in a body that represented the will of the people; aristocracy, expressed in another body consisting of the landed gentry who because they didn’t have to work for a living could spend their free time contemplating matters of the public interest; and monarchy in a king who would have power. In Aristotle’s mixed constitution goodness would be with the people in democracy; wisdom would be with the aristocracy; and power would be with the monarchy.  

Under the American system of Separation of Powers, democracy would be in the House of Representatives where members would be closer to the people by virtue that they would have to stand for election every two years. Aristocracy would be with the U.S. Senate, which would actually be removed from the people in that the citizens of each state would elect their state legislatures who in turn would select two senators from each state. It wasn’t until the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913 that voters in each state directly elected their senators. Still the Senate was also removed from the people by virtue of Senators serving six year terms rather than two year terms. Initially with state selection of senators, the Senate served the interests of their states and often voted in the Senate as instructed by their respective state legislatures. Nevertheless, the bicameral legislative branch of government afforded internal checks and balances, as bills could not proceed to the Executive Branch until passed by both chambers.  

Separation of Powers, then, broke from Aristotle’s mixed constitution in both the institutions of the Executive and the Judiciary. Republican government, as put forth by Montesquieu, held that power should be divided between three coequal branches of government: a bicameral legislature, an executive and a judiciary. The Executive branch would be similar to the Monarchy, but it would not be hereditary. Rather power would change hands through a peaceful transfer of power every four years following national elections. The Executive too was removed from the people. Although voters in each state would vote for president, their vote would determine how electors from each state and chosen by state legislatures, would vote in the electoral college. Like the monarch, the President would be head of state, but unlike the monarch the president would also be head of government.  The Judiciary would be charged with the task of ensuring that laws passed by the legislative branch and signed by the executive branch were indeed constitutional. The American judiciary, however, differed from the British in that it was a separate branch of government. In Britain, the courts were part of the judiciary.   

Question 1.2

What is Federalist #51 implying about the policy process?


Arriving at a consensus is easy to accomplish because everybody knows their proper role


Arriving at policy is a near impossibility because the diversity of viewpoints and the difficulty of achieving consensus among that diversity makes it highly unlikely that we will agree on what the policy problem is, let alone what an ideal solution is.


That only the states make policy


That the federal government really should not have a role in solving policy problems.

Power is further divided between the national government and the states in what is known as a federal system.  

[The idea is that if power is divided between units of governance, no one unit has sufficient power to encroach upon the rights and liberties of its citizens. Federalism as an organizing principle was important to the states because they were fearful of the centralized power and authority of the federal government. It was against the centralized power and authority of the British Crown that we rebelled when we declared our independence. The states were concerned that the federal government would become another powerful central government usurping the rightful authority of the states, and by extension the rights of the people. Therefore, by creating a federal system whereby power would be defuse, it would be much more difficult for the federal government without the cooperation of the states to encroach upon the rights of the people. Nowhere is this point made more clear than in Federalist Paper Number 10 where Madison talks about the effects of faction.  

Madison also assumes the states to be factions as well. The reason for the Federalist Papers in the first place was to convince the voters in New York to petition their state legislature to support ratification of the Constitution. The Federalist Papers were a series of editorials in the New York Press. New York’s concern was that it would be dominated by other big states, most notably Virginia. Therefore, Madison offers the idea of an expansive republic to suggest that over time more states will be added to the union in which case the relative power of each state will be diluted and no one state will have enough power to dominate the others. When Madison and the other Framers of the Constitution talk about power, they assume it to be a finite commodity. If divided amongst all the possible factions, no one faction can have enough unless they form coalitions. But in forming coalitions, original positions which may have been extreme are watered down.   

This clearly has implications for the policy process and ultimately the shape of public policy. On one level, Madison consistent with the premise of federalism, assumes that there will really be no role for the federal government when it comes to policy because all domestic policy functions will be their responsibility. From 1787 until 1933 the U.S. lived under a system of dual federalism which denoted coequal sovereignty between the states and the federal government. Each was separate and sovereign in its own sphere of authority. The states were to be responsible for domestic affairs, which included education, police and fire protection, maintenance of infrastructure, and criminal justice systems. The federal government would be responsible for national defense including securing the borders, maintaining a foreign policy, maintaining a national currency, and delivering the mail. It wasn’t until 1933 when the states were ill equipped to deal with the Great Depression that the federal government became involved in domestic affairs and we began to have discussions of policy along with discussions of government. Federalism was redefined as Intergovernmental Relations (IGR) and the states effectively became the administrative subdivisions of the federal government for administering federal policies and programs as concrete expressions of policy. In the 1930s there was what was known as Cooperative Federalism whereby the federal government would formulate policies and programs and pay for them while the states would be responsible for their implementation.   

On another level, Madison assumes factions to be interest groups. So when he says the more interest groups the merrier it is with an eye to diluting the relative power of each.  If no one interest group has enough power to ride roughshod over the interests of the people or to control the government, these groups are forced to form coalitions and engage in compromise. Therefore, when it comes to defining the public interest, only the common denominator will be found. Consider for a moment that perhaps a universal health care system consisting of a single payer were introduced. Because it would involve getting rid of the private insurance companies, and even the concept of employer-based health insurance, it could be said to represent the extreme position given what we are accustomed to. But in the policy process there will be interest groups categorically opposed to any type of healthcare reform because 1) it is contrary to free markets; 2) it hurts the insurance agency; and 3) it eliminates the control that employers currently have over their workers. The different interest groups, not to mention the different members of Congress reflecting different ideological positions, mean that the extreme position of universal healthcare has almost no chance of being passed. Moreover, there is no agreement that a problem even exists. But a common denominator might look as follows: since we all agree that most people should not be thrown off their policies for preexisting conditions, the new policy will be an added regulation protecting people from losing their insurance or being denied insurance because they changed jobs. 

 In taking the common denominator around which the only consensus could be arrived, the policy measure that was adopted reflects a minimal step or what Charles Lindblom has referred to as incremental steps in his characterization of the policy process as the science of muddling through. Although the system did not accomplish much, it laid a foundation for future action. More importantly from Madison’s perspective the system didn’t trample anybody’s rights. By design the system protects individual rights and liberties by default. It doesn’t trample rights because the near impossibility of reaching a consensus means that government will not be able to do a whole lot. All it can do is move ever so slowly. This suggests that finding solutions to problems through policy is almost impossible and that it was very much by deliberate design. This design, then, is consistent with the anti-statist ethos prevalent in the U.S.  

Question 1.3

What is the connection between Federalist Paper # 10 and Lindblom's idea of muddling through?


Because Madison is implying that only small steps can be taken given the need to compromise among a multitude of diverse factions, the best that c an be achieved is a small step, or foundation upon which to build more.


Because the federal government will never be able to achieve anything, policy will always be left up to the states


If New York voters ratify the Constitution, they will be in the forefront of the policy making process


All of the Above

 Tensions in American Public Philosophy  

There are two basic strands of the American public philosophy which perhaps leads to two somewhat opposing views of policy, although they aren’t mutually exclusive. One strand is referred to as the liberal strand and is grounded in a classical liberal tradition found in the writings of John Locke. And the second strand is what is known as the republican philosophy. Whereas the former stresses individualism and leads to a conception of the public interest that is  nothing more than the summation of individual interests, the latter leads to a more overarching public interest that is larger than the summation of individual interests.  

At the core of liberal political philosophy is the idea that each individual possesses human agency, which means that she can define for herself what constitutes a good life and chart out a course for bringing that good life to fruition. Adam Smith famously referred to this as the pursuit of self-interests, as that pursuit represents a concrete form of charting out a course for achieving the good life. This means that the state needs to be neutral with regards to the good, because if it chooses one good over the other, then it is not treating everybody equally according to Ronald Dworkin’s conception of equality. According to Dworkin, the state can only treat individuals equally if it is completely neutral with regards to the good. This, of course would imply a government that does nothing because to enact a policy of any sort is effectively tantamount to choosing one conception of the good over another.  

Not only does acting violate neutrality, but it also violates property rights, which Locke to some extent defined as an extension of the individual self. Locke is well known for his social contract theory where he posits that individuals born in a state of nature enjoy absolute and perfect liberty, but they don’t enjoy political freedom. After all, in the lawless state of nature anybody can come along and deprive that person of his//her life. Therefore, individuals come together and surrender certain rights in exchange for protection, but they only surrender those rights necessary for the sovereign to protect property rights. Locke goes on to argue that the sovereign who fails to protect property rights forfeits its legitimacy. When the sovereign encroaches upon people’s rights, the people are well within their rights to rise up in rebellion, overthrow the sovereign, and replace him with one that will protect their rights.  

Why are property rights so important? Because to Locke they are in part an extension of the individual self. The farmer who farms his plot of land adds value to that land though his labor. So when the sovereign seizes that property, he isn’t only seizing that land, but also a part of the individual who invested his labor into that land to effectively create its value. The language of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution would suggest that property rights are sacred as it says that government may not take property without just compensation, but it may take property for a compelling public interest through what is known as eminent domain. The idea here is if the sovereign has to compensate the property owner every time it seeks to seize one’s property, even for a public interest, it will think twice before it actually does it. That is, it will only do so if it is absolutely necessary to serve the public interest.   

The Fifth Amendment actually parallels the logic of Locke’s property rights. In his Second Treatise on Government he states that the purpose of government is to safeguard life, liberty, and estates. This is almost identical to Thomas Jefferson’s later formulation of life, liberty and happiness in the American Declaration of Independence. Perhaps happiness sounds nicer than property, but it is believed that Jefferson assumed that one would naturally be happy if one’s property was indeed being protected. To attach property rights to something is to take a liberty interest and encircle it with a zone of protection. To define something as a right creates a zone of protection and to define something as a property right creates an additional zone of protection. 

 Locke never says that property rights cannot be seized, but if they are the sovereign has to be able to publicly justify it as essential to the public interest. What eminent domain does is trigger a set of protections. First the sovereign provides notice of intent to seize property for the public good. Second, it has to provide an opportunity for those who will lose their land to contest that decision and make an argument for why that land should not be seized. What eminent domain is doing is creating a buffer against the arbitrary exercise of authority, which was also Locke’s principal concern. It was through the arbitrary exercise of power and authority that sovereigns seized property. To make it clear that the sovereign could be overthrown for failure to protect property was actually a radical idea and one that the American colonies used to justify independence. Perhaps what was most radical was the notion that a monarch’s legitimacy did not derive from Divine Right of Kings, but from the consent of the governed. Still, there is a community component here because in order to have a rebellion to overthrow there has to be a consensus among members of the community that the sovereign has indeed violated their rights.  

The obvious question, then, is how government does anything? Political scientist and law professor Bruce Ackerman suggests that neutrality requires institutions that are open to all to participate. Ackerman doesn’t only suggest open institutions, but that individuals be required to participate — to make a case for why their good should trump all others. In other words, the state that makes a choice does not violate neutrality or Dworkin’s conception of equality so long as it created institutions for participation and respected the rights of people to participate in the so-called policy deliberations. That is, by effectively creating democratic institutions the state effectively gets around the limitations of neutrality. The state, after all, has to act, especially when there might be a problem. Without a mechanism for participation, the state wouldn’t be able to act because by doing so it would effectively be choosing one’s good over another.  

Question 1.4

Liberal political philosophy's position on neutrality would suggest no role for policy on the grounds that the state cannot act. On what basis, then, does the state act?


To satisfy all the interests that contribute to campaigns


John Stuart Mill's harm principle that one's liberty can be abridged to prevent harm to one's self or to others


To prevent an economic collapse that could harm others


Both B and C

One Nineteenth Century liberal, John Stuart Mill, put forth the harm principle that holds the government may interfere with one’s liberty if one’s actions are either harmful to one’s self or harmful to others. This has become the basis for regulating one’s agency in a political system committed to limited government. The classical liberal defines harm in physical terms, i.e. the plant polluting the environment can be regulated because pollution may be harmful to the health of others. Of course, this means that the burden is on the state to demonstrate that a regulation is indeed necessary to protect others from harm. That is, a compelling case for this regulation needs to be made. For the libertarian, this idea leads to what is often referred to as the laissez-faire night watchman state. In this state, one enjoys absolute liberty unless one’s actions cause demonstrable harm. This means that the state never pursues positive policy in the form of programs because those programs may have the unintended consequence of infringing the liberty of recipients because of the conditions attached to the receipt of those program benefits.  

Modern liberals, however, define Mill’s harm principle a bit more broadly. Since poverty in general causes harm to those who are poor, government can regulate the actions of a few, i.e. infringe on the property rights of some, in order to protect others from harm. The modern liberal and the classical liberal still emphasize the concept of agency, but the modern liberal also understands that society is considerably more complex than the agrarian society that Locke lived in. In an agrarian economy one farming one’s plot of land has no real bearing on one’s neighbor farming her plot of land. In an industrial economy, the factory on one’s land can certainly impact the lives of others.  

The libertarian, then, tends to see the world in classical terms. The conservative tends to also see the world in classical terms. For the conservative, there has been no real change in the economy that would justify interfering in the market economy. The conservative, then, seeks to conserve the traditions of the past. But the contemporary conservative who seeks to preserve past traditions also believes in order. The contemporary conservative does not believe in democracy; rather he believes that an aristocracy should govern because this aristocracy knows better than the masses what is good for them. Moreover, the masses who don’t know any better have to be instructed on how to behave. Therefore, the contemporary conservative does not think that individuals are entitled to the same privacy rights as liberals.   

The contemporary liberal maintains that what two people do in the privacy of their own home has no effect and cannot cause harm to others. Therefore the state has no business regulating. The contemporary conservative, however, is more than willing to regulate what individuals do in private because of their belief that it may destroy the moral fabric of society, and because our moral values are derived from religious traditions, certain types of behavior are taken as an assault on those traditions. When individuals are allowed to behave as they want, even, in private, we have a breakdown in society. The libertarian holds that one’s behavior should neither be regulated in the marketplace nor regulated in privacy because it interferes with their liberty interests.  

The second underpinning political philosophy is republicanism and at its core is the notion of public virtue. Government in its decisions and actions, which obviously includes public policy, should be guided by the public interest. The public interest is not the summation of individual interests, but is transcendent of individual interests. It is from republicanism that we actually get the concepts of bicameralism and tripartite separation of powers. The U.S. Constitution is clear about two things: first the United States is a republic and that second when new states are admitted to the union, they will have republican forms of government.  

A bicameral legislature has two chambers: an upper chamber and a lower chamber. The reason for bicameralism is to have internal checks and balances. Power should be further divided between the legislative and executive branches, as well as the courts should also be separate and independent of the other branches of government. Ideally republican communities are small because they should be homogeneous so it will be clear just what constitutes the public interest. And in republicanism the state is conceived of as a commonwealth — a community that serves and protects the public interest.   

Republicanism is not the same as democracy. On the contrary, there is great mistrust of democracy and the idea that the masses should rule. So much are the masses distrusted that republican government rests on representative government or what we might best describe as indirect democracy. The idea is that the people elect representatives to represent them because they will have a better understanding of what constitutes the public interest than the people do. Rule by the people merely degenerates into mobocracy, which is rule by the mob.  

Although protecting individual rights and liberties can be at the core of the public interest, they are not necessarily central to republican government in the same way they are to liberal government. What is central is serving the interests of the community. Although republicanism is by no means a recipe for active government and can certainly be used as a justification for limited government, it can be put in the service of public policy intended to further the public interest.  

American politics is played out on the fault line between liberalism and republicanism. To a certain extent, the U.S. Constitution is a marriage of liberalism to republicanism. In contemporary terms, liberalism is defined as respect for diversity and the rejection of absolutes. The union as whole is diverse and the union structure could be said to represent a liberal framework in which states and their respective cultures coexist. Each state is a republic whose public interest is defined on the basis of each’s respective political culture.  

Implications for Policy Process and Shape of Public Policy   

It would make sense to think of public policy as a straightforward process whereby problems are identified, solutions are found, and the problems are solved. In other words if we can return to the flow diagram it should be as easy as following a manual for assembling something. But the process is not a matter of a flow diagram, rather it is a political process very much complicated by a variety of different actors with different interests and stakes in possible outcomes. Moreover the process of defining problems, let alone finding solutions, is complicated by how different actors view the issues given their respective world views and ideological positions. That is, they bring their value systems to bear.   

This only makes constructing policy a very difficult task. No two people view a problem the same way, and no two people easily agree on solutions. The U.S., however, is a pluralist society, which means that there are a multitude of perspectives and all those perspectives are permitted to be heard in the process.  

Policy is often formulated by elites who are successful in setting agendas, and by mobilizing support for their agendas they are able to similarly mobilize support for their particular definition of a problem. What the policy looks like is also a product of this type of mobilization. But it may also be a product of advocacy networks.   

Ideology, public philosophy, and public opinion create a prism through which we view the world. Whether we see problems or not, is purely a function of our world view. In the U.S. there is an overarching American public philosophy which revolves around the notion of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." But those terms mean different things to different people. Americans do believe strongly in the following:   

Approaches to the Study of Public Policy   

The study of public policy does not entail a monolithic approach, rather there are several different approaches, which are not mutually exclusive. The first approach is often referred to as the traditional model, which also follows a standard social science model. The second model is known as the ‘policy sciences” model which seeks to apply standard social science methodologies to the values of society. Whereas the first model asks whether the policy in question works — whether it has achieved its stated objectives according to a standard rational actor model — the second asks whether in achieving those objectives it also serves the larger societal values and/or objectives. The third approach, then, which represents a new model of policy analysis is a values approach and in many respects reflects an application of political theory to policy analysis. Here the central question may be whether a policy accords with a society’s values.  

Traditional Approach   

The traditional policy model is one of rational activism that assumes once the goals of society have been identified, the choice of correct policy will flow easily so that society can achieve optimum social benefit. At the core of this approach is a cost/benefit analysis where the central question is whether the monetary benefits to society outweigh the costs of the policy. In social science terms, rigorous research is done to determine whether there is a causal relationship between the policy in question and the stated objectives. Analysis should be value-free. Theoretically, social science should serve the purpose of removing politics and ideology from the policy process, basing it instead on rigorous methodology rather than political ideology.   

Here there is an appeal to the rational actor model, which assumes policy to be the result of several steps beginning with clearly defining objectives, carefully evaluating alternatives policy courses of action on the basis of cost/benefit analyses, and then making a choice of which alternative achieves the stated objective in the most efficient manner. To the extent that this model rests on the premise that politics and ideology should be separated from the political process, it rests on the assumption that facts — what are observed — can be separated from values — how they ought to be. In this model, the values of the policy analyst and the larger community do not, or at least they should not, enter into the equation. This means that ideally policy evaluation should be removed from public discussion, because discussion only violates our sense of appropriate isolation by allowing values to creep into the equation.  

The traditional model can be said to represent the ideal state of policymaking. Charles Lindblom distinguishes between the root model — a comprehensive model — and the branch model, which is one of successive limited comparisons. The root model is the rational actor model and assumes policy to be made from the ground up. Here the analyst goes through all of the steps in the process. In the branch model, however, everything is relative and choices are ultimately made on the basis on what is possible; not on the basis of what would be the most desirable were this an ideal state. In this vein, the branch model is more realistic because it takes into account the complexity involved in formulating policy in a world where everything is ultimately contextual. Lindblom refers to this as the science of muddling through or incrementalism, in which policy is no more than an adjustment of what already exists, which only creates a new foundation upon which to build through incremental steps.  

Similarly, Herbert Simon refers to Lindblom’s distinction as that between the economic man and the administrative man. The economic man follows the root model and rationally approaches the policy process. For the economic man there are no limitations in terms of resources and capabilities of those actors involved in the process. There are no political conflicts or bargains to work out disputes over problem definition or possible solutions. Moreover, there are no time limitations for studying a problem, determining causality, and crafting a solution. Rationality simply leads to the right and proper outcome because there are absolutely no bounds to rationality. It is the administrative man who does what he can given the bounds of rationality or what Simon calls “bounded rationality.” These bounds include available resources, limited time constraints, the actual capabilities of the actors involved, and the political realities that often get worked through processes of bargaining between multitudes of different actors.  

Policy itself is made through an intricate system of bargaining. One of the classic models of policymaking is what Michael Cohen, James March, and Johan Olsen refer to as the garbage can. Into this garbage can various problems and solutions are dumped by a variety of different actors, who themselves move in and out of the process. As different people move in and out of the process they put different ideas into the mix and the outcome is not only affected by the mix within the can, but also by a host of variables outside the can, such as the types of pressures that different actors in the process are responding to.  

In its final form policy is often the confluence of policy streams and political streams that are able to take advantage of new policy windows. Political Scientist John Kingdon has referred to this policymaking result as the policy primeval soup. Policy communities composed of specialists in a given area tend to operate independently of political changes or pressure from voting constituents and interest groups. Independent of specific problems or policy streams are political streams that are composed of things, such as public mood, campaigns mounted by interest and policy advocacy groups, recent election results, ideological and party composition of legislative bodies, and composition of the executive. It is when the policy and political streams are coupled, which usually occurs when a policy window is opened that policy is made. This is because the opening of the window creates an opportunity that can be taken advantage of.  

Policy Sciences Model   

Because policy is formulated in a political universe, the traditional or social science model is almost an impossibility. Were policy to formulated and then evaluated solely on the basis of ideology, that would be problematic because of its lack of rigor. The policy sciences model attempts to bridge the gap between the social sciences and ideology. Political scientist Harold Lasswell famously defined the policy sciences approach as analysis that effectively mobilizes intellectual resources to meet the challenge of great and continuing problems of the age.   

Taking a policy sciences approach involves taking a contextual approach to the problem in question. As Lasswell put it:   

 "It examines the interplay of values and institutions, and the several phases of policy; it makes  use of all techniques of data gathering and processing and adopts various methods...to its needs; it contributes to the strategies available to the achieving of such overriding goals as the realization of human dignity — such as, for instance, the strategy of individual initiative. The policy sciences use policy for knowledge, and knowledge fotr policy (Lasswell 1965, p. 33). " 

A policy sciences approach is then interested in reconstructing the practice of society, which includes an interest in assembling and evaluating knowledge from whatever source, in addition to simply knowledge about the policymaking process. A policy science orientation in the U.S. for example, might then be directed toward providing knowledge that improves the practice of democracy. Or does a particular policy in question further the ends of democracy? Or is it in harmony with a community’s underpinning values?  

Question 1.5

Why is a policy sciences approach so critical in evaluating public policy?


Because it bridges the gap between rigor and ideology.


Because the country is so polarized that policy is increasingly made on the basis of ideology.


Because most policy analyses lack serious scientific rigor.


Because policy analyses often focuses on cost-benefit evaluations to the exclusion of values.

A policy sciences approach, then, requires the following: 1) that the goals be clear and that they can be easily achieved on the basis of research demonstrating that specific measures have already achieved them; 2) the goals that are sought are not only achievable given available resources, but are desirable in terms of what the political community values; and 3) there must be a body of research that can establish that a specific policy will achieve the stated goals in such a way that the community’s values are preserved and even enhanced. The policy sciences model is ultimately about drawing a greater linkage between research — the basis for knowledge — and the actual policymaking process.   

The actual policymaking process, then, becomes the basis for formulating the criteria by which policy will be measured and analyzed. The policy sciences approach goes beyond the social science model by incorporating the underlying values of the community into the objectives and goals of the policy that are to be achieved. In essence, it bridges the gap between facts and values, which requires no less than yoking together empirical policy concerns based on rigorous scientific method with normative values that may be essentially ideological. Policy sciences effectively places the social sciences in a larger context, whereby public policy is based public values.   

New Model of Policy Analysis   

The basis for a new methodology lies in bridging the gap between facts and values, which in turn requires no less than the yoking together of empirical policy concerns with normative political theory. This new model doesn’t seek to abandon the scientific model characteristic of the traditional approach, but to place it in a larger context. If policy analysis is for the purpose of improving policy making, it needs to also consider more prominently the role of ideas. Government has a much greater responsibility than implementing those decisions that are responsive to public wants. Rather it has a responsibility to engage the public in ongoing dialogue.  

Political theorist Stephen Macedo has characterized liberalism as an exercise in justification. All government actions need to be justified, which in turn require the creation of institutions that allow for both the public to contest governmental actions and government to justify its actions. This means that in a liberal democratic society all public policy is really about dialogue. Or as Stone has said, policy is about communities serving the interests of communities. Similarly John Dryzek calls it discursive democracy. By discursive democracy, Dryzek means a set of institutions or some institutional design in which individuals of a community may come forth and make their expectations known and expect that there will be a convergence between theirs and the expectations of others. It is a deliberative scheme that should account for the individual or collective needs and interests of the individual. As such, it is a deliberative scheme that requires  that individuals participate in the process. It is a design that requires the consideration of community values not only in the formulation of policy and its implementation but its subsequent evaluation as well.  

For this approach, we could modify the flow diagram somewhat. The first step is to define society’s values. The second step is to derive policy goals from those values. Since a key underpinning value in the U.S. has long been independence and self-sufficiency, the goal of a welfare policy should also be whether it is structured in such a way to afford recipients the opportunity to be self-sufficient. Whereas the traditional model might simply begin with the objective of providing for the needs of the poor, the new model extends beyond that to say meeting their needs requires more than simply giving them money. Obviously they need the assistance to buy food. But perhaps a program for the poor that creates opportunities to work and receive on-the-job training with new job skills that are transferable would also meet their immediate needs while also affording them the opportunity to be self-sufficient. Of course, this may not be so easy, as there may be considerable disagreement and debate over just what those societal values are. The third step entails measurement of data which can be empirical, but the data is be measured against the underlying values of society.  

The fourth step involves a philosophic inquiry into issues arising from policy. Determining whether the benefits outweigh the costs according to the traditional model is easy enough. But determining whether a policy adversely affects the liberal character of society involves a whole new level of inquiry. Consider for a moment the question of whether a traditional public assistance program fosters dependency. Here we certainly want to understand how liberals and conservatives view this particular issue. But if a policy fosters dependency, which is certainly contrary to the traditional American work ethic, does it also undermine the underlying value of independence and self-sufficiency? Or if we are providing public assistance because as citizens poor people have rights, according to a contemporary liberal perspective, and public assistance is a right, does that undermine that citizens — regardless of whether they are rich or poor — also have obligations? And one of those obligations may be to participate in what Lawrence Mead calls the common project of work. The next step is the philosophic measurement of policy ramifications against philosophic underpinnings — social values. And lastly, there is a qualitative cost-benefit analysis where the question is whether the benefits justify social costs, especially those that cannot easily be monetized.  

The new model broadens the traditional concept of cost-benefit analysis and also implies a new role for political theory. That is, it can be applied to contemporary circumstances for the purpose of deriving greater understanding. If the purpose of public policy is to further the purposes of the community, those purposes can only be furthered if we truly understand them in philosophical terms. It is then imperative that policy analysis include the probing of communal values, or at least broad social traditions, to discern whether policy is accomplishing social objectives. In part, this approach is centered on the constructive use of political theory as a means of solving social problems.  

It has become commonplace for liberals and conservatives to view the role of policy in society very differently. For the typical conservative who espouses limited government in the market place but regulation of personal behavior in private in order to preserve order, there really is no need for positive public policy, i.e programs that may result in moral hazard. Moral hazard is said to occur when a program like public assistance, for instance, while offered for noblest reasons has the unintended consequence of creating a disincentive to work. Rather, policy should be limited to regulation, and only then should it be undertaken when a compelling case can be made that it is necessary to prevent harm.   

For the typical liberal who believes that markets failure and that society has a moral obligation to assist those who are disadvantaged through no fault of their own, public policy, especially positive policy aimed at creating a level playing field, greater equality of opportunity and simply more fairness, is essential.  The standard model of policy analysis might result in a zero sum game whereby if liberals win conservatives lose and vice verse. But the new policy model can actually bridge the gap between the two opposing ideological camps. That is a policy that satisfies each may serve the larger public interest, especially when the community is as diverse as the U.S.   


We began this chapter with a definition of policy as a set of measures taken by a political community to address a problem affecting the political community. Following a brief discussion of the different forms that policy can take, we moved into a discussion of the complexity surrounding problem definition, which is compounded not only by the different interests and/or values of the different actors in the process, but how these different actors are guided by the larger political culture in which they operate.   

The U.S. which has long had an anti-statist tradition, has also had an underlying political culture based on the marriage of liberalism to republicanism. But this fault line has also been the arena for American politics because questions of whether the state should be limited in adopting policy, i.e. mostly in the form of regulation, or active in adopting policy, is a function of how American values are perceived by the diversity of interests based on their respective world views, ideologies, and simply how policy outcomes would affect them. And this, of course the makes the definition of policy problems, let alone finding policy solutions, very difficult.  

Public policy is not formulated in a vacuum but is very specific to the needs of the community it is intended to serve. This means that it is highly contextual. Tensions in the American public philosophy affect how problems are defined and how policies are constructed, if they are constructed, to deal with them. In the end, then, values are important and have to be understood to play a role in the policy process. They certainly play a role in how we approach and measure policy. Because of the near impossibility of reaching consensus on anything, policy is bound to follow an incremental approach.  

Finally, we discussed three different models for studying public policy: the traditional model, the policy sciences model, and the societal values model. If we can summarize this chapter in terms of a trajectory, we should be lead to the conclusion that the best approach to the study of policy is to determine to what extent a policy further the ends of the community it was designed for, and to what extent it serves to bring the underlying values of the community to fruition. Although there will be wide disagreement over just what those underlying values are, those values are ultimately the basis for the goals and objectives of policy, and therefore that is where the study of policy should begin. Policy, in the end, needs to reflect the underlying presuppositions of society, and it is ultimately against those presuppositions that policy must be measured.     


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