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Public policy

According to Thomas A. Birkland's book An Introduction to the Policy Process, there is a "lack of a consensus definition of public policy. Thomas Dye argues that this search for a definition of public policy can degenerate into a word game." (p. 19)

That said, here is a starting point.. Public policy is the study of policy making by governments. A government's public policy is the set of policies (laws, plans, actions, behaviors) that it chooses. Since governments claim authority and responsibility (to varying degrees) over a large group of individuals, they see fit to establish plans and methods of action that will govern that society.

Table 1.3 in Birkland's book outlines a few definitions of public policy (p. 21):

  • Clarke E. Cochran , et al.: "The term public policy always refers to the actions of government and the intentions that determine those actions."
  • Clarke E. Cochran, et al.: "Public policy is the outcome of the struggle in government over who gets what."
  • Thomas Dye : Public policy is "Whatever governments choose to do or not do."
  • Charles L. Cochran and Eloise F. Malone: "Public policy consists of political decisions for implementing programs to achieve societal goals."
  • B. Guy Peters : "Stated most simply, public policy is the sum of government activities, whether acting directly or through agents, as it has an influence on the life of citizens."

Birkland offers these common traits of all definitions of public policy (p. 20):

  • The policy is made in the "public's" name.
  • Policy is generally made or initiated by government.
  • Policy is interpreted and implemented by public and private actors.
  • Policy is what the government intends to do.
  • Policy is what the government chooses not to do.

According to the Encarta definition of political science [1]:

The field of public policy involves the study of specific policy problems and governmental responses to them. Political scientists involved in the study of public policy attempt to devise solutions for problems of public concern.

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary [2], policy is defined as:

2a : definite course or method of action selected from among alternatives and in light of given conditions to guide and determine present and future decisions. 2b : a high-level overall plan embracing the general goals and acceptable procedures especially of a governmental body.

Context / related academic fields

Public policy, of course, overlaps with many other subject areas. Other related areas include political science, government, philosophy, economics, law, social welfare, public administration, public health, and statistics.

History of public policy

According to "An Introduction to the Policy Process" (2001, ISBN 0-7656-0418-3) by Thomas A. Birkland:

While the study of politics has a long history, the systematic study of public policy, on the other hand, can be said to be a twentieth century creation. It dates, according to Daniel McCool, to 1922, when political scientist Charles Merriam sought to connect the theory and practices of politics to understanding the actual activities of government, that is public policy." (p.4) (see McCool, Daniel C. Public Policy Theories, Models, and Concepts: An Anthology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1995.)

Evaluating public policy

People of different political persuasions have varying ideas about the proper purpose of government. (See liberalism and conservatism. Also see democratic, republican, libertarian, socialist, communist, and authoritarian political ideologies.)

One way to evaluate the success of public policy is to examine the extent to which it increases the well-being of its citizens. But how is well-being defined? Should governments strive for equality of condition, i.e. to eliminate poverty and hunger? Or should governments strive for equality of opportunity, i.e. that all people have access to the tools they need to shape their own future?

An interesting way to illustrate differences in public policy approaches is to consider the tradeoff between equality and efficiency:

Equality (of condition)

A government policy that seeks to increase equality (of condition) usually does so by redistributive means, i.e. taxing the rich and channeling the funds to help low-income people.

To some, such redistribution seems unfair. For example, consider a rich person who feels that he has earned every penny of his income. He would ask, "why should my income be taxed away and given to the poor, who did not work for it?" His argument has two key underlying points. First, the government's philosophy of giving money to the poor is wrong, because it will not encourage the poor to work harder. Second, the government's taxation process is relatively inefficient and therefore money is wasted as it passes through layers of government bureaucracy.

To others, redistribution is the humane thing to do. Government should provide a safety net to keep society running smoothly. There are empathetic as well as practical reasons for this. One, these believers in social welfare argue that not all poor people are lazy. Everyone has rough times and needs some help from time to time; one cannot always rely on private charity, so it makes sense for the government to step in. Two, a civil society tends to have less crime and allows stronger economic growth. Three, do wealthy people really deserve to keep 100% of their profits? Does not the government provide roads, national defense, stability, and a good climate for economic activity? How could anyone become wealthy if there was no rule of law? Proponents of redistribution would say that paying taxes is a simple matter of reimbursing government for the services that it provides. (See also: Theories of taxation )

Efficiency (of the market)

A government policy that seeks to increase efficiency usually does so by market-based means, i.e. making policies that allow free markets to function smoothly.

It is generally recognized that a free market leads to significant disparities in wealth. Economists often say that the rich and powerful deserve the money they earn by working long and hard hours. Moreover, such hard work leads to innovations. These innovations spill over and help propel society forward. Therefore, all of society gains. In this way, "a rising tide lifts all boats."

Critics say that the rich and powerful have got that way due to an uneven playing field. Sure, many are intelligent and do create good innovations. What concerns the social minded critics is that the richer keep getting richer while the poor get poorer. This gap in wealth tends to lead to a dysfunctional society. Should not all people be guaranteed certain things, such as a quality education and decent wages?


A not-so-idealistic view of public policy

In a democracy, an idealist would like to see policies created to serve the public interest. There is a less mainstream way to view the policy-making process; skeptics would argue that the real goal of public policy is to increase the wealth and power of the rulers and wealthy. Hopefully, along the way, the health and well-being of the general society is improved as well, but that cannot be guaranteed.

The following sections discuss the skeptic's view of the interplay between the haves and the have-nots in public policy. Please note that its tone is certainly not neutral and not particularly objective.

Freedom of the press

According to the United States Constitutional notions of freedom of the press, journalists should be free to report about anything at all. (The Constitution does offer some limitations on these freedoms, however.) Market forces will drive journalists to communicate to masses of people about major problems. Some of these problems may be domestic social issues and some may be foreign policy issues. In time, new policies may lessen these problems. While this frequently annoys the wealthy and powerful, they also benefit from the improved society. (A rioting, unstable society is no good for business, after all.)

Republican government

The basic political structure of a group should be controlled in some fashion by people with ordinary amounts of wealth and no power. If this group does not have control, it will create rebels and organize, especially if modern communication methods are available. While this definitely annoys the wealthy and powerful, it also is the only known method of creating a stable government. Since social stability is essential to the creation and maintenance of wealth and power, it directly benefits wise members of wealthy and powerful groups.

Since government administration can be a real specialty, the most long lasting governments generally assign it to specialists, and yet give ordinary citizens some say in the decisions and selection of the specialists. This is called a republic.

A government of law, not people

The government should be subject to law, in such a way that it can be predicted and controlled. Again, this is a two-edged sword that both hampers and benefits the wealthy and powerful. The advantage to the poor and weak is that they can form common cause and use legal means to redress major social wrongs.

In general, the government's deliberations, laws and budget should be published. Without this, the above safeguards may fail. Hereby I shall rule by law.

A free market

A free market creates extremes of both wealth and poverty. However, some say that it is so much more efficient than other systems that it should be encouraged to be the primary means to distribute wealth. The government generally adjudicates contracts and regulates fair weights and measures. More recently, governments have regulated industrial wastes. One of the more successful programs has issued permits for a fixed tonnage of a pollutant, and established a market in permits. Private groups are permitted to purchase and retire pollution permits. As well, polluters then have an incentive to invest in technology to reduce pollutants and sell their permits. Still, the market is less efficient in fields that would be regarded at "market failures," even in basic economic terms: Natural monopolies, public goods, and imperfect information, for example, prevent consumers from making efficient decisions because they cannot judge the quality and price of different suppliers. In health care, brain scans vary from $1,000 to $10,000, and competition is almost nonexistent because consumers have few ways to compare prices the way they do with the latest cell phone.

Others argue, however, that the "free market" as a whole is in fact a misnomer, since it actually requires a large number of regulations supporting private property, e.g., patents and anti-trespassing laws. In the end, it requires as many laws as a "non-free" market, just of a different sort.

Adoption of positive economies of scale

Some networks and services have positive economies of scale. That is, as they are more widely used, they become more valuable. The classic examples are money, weights and measures, roads, a common language, public education, and an agreed public ethical system. With industrialization, a large number of other situations have developed positive economies of scale: screw profiles, a thousand types of industrial linkages and methods, networks to provide credit, water, electric power, gas, sewage, telephone and data, computer operating systems, computer languages, and media.

The most advantageous regulation seems to be for the government to wait for a standard to predominate in the market, then require use of the prominent standard, and suppress the rest. This can be done benignly by simply having the government refuse to purchase other standards.

This method was used from antiquity until the European religious wars of the 1700s trained western society to value freedom.

The classic method seems to retain all of its ancient advantages for industrial standards, even though it arguably fails for religion and ethics. The classic method succeeded for measures and, eventually, even for a calendar. A universal money, gold, was once available.

One of the most valuable, peculiar and complex networks is a network for credit. Traditionally, this was centered on a national bank that certified subscribers. A credit network allows money to flow anywhere in the countries that subscribe. The advantage is that regional economies have access to more credit when they need to borrow to plant crops or improve structures (both are seasonal in many areas). In the past, in such situations, regional banks would often lend all their money, and then stop lending because no more money was available. This limits production, as well as limiting recovery from natural disasters.

Military defense

Successful governments develop means to perform a military defense of their regions. The wealthy and powerful limit the power of these groups by inculcating (and perhaps believing) propaganda about civic duties. Many long-term republics supplement this with a civil militia, and political and military structures that are not centralized, and therefore not easy to conquer or subvert.

Health and safety

Successful governments develop regulations to preserve health and safety. The more notable successes are public sanitation, drinking-water, health-education, vaccination and quarantine programs, and building codes.

Successful governments develop means to provide some minimal care for paupers and during emergencies. The level of care can be extremely crude, as long as it is not life-threatening. The classic, relatively successful programs are social security, with private investment, unemployment insurance paid for by workers, and some sort of civil defense or emergency program. The emergency and civil defense programs can be far more effective if made part of education and building codes.

Progressive taxation

It is known that certain types of taxation are very difficult for poor people. Many poor people are poor not because they do not work hard. For these people, assembling large amounts of cash money on a fixed date can be nearly impossible. Therefore, poll taxes and franchise taxes are traditionally thought evil.

Science policy

Main article: Science policy

Some scientific research costs little compared to the pain, suffering, and expense that new techniques can prevent. At the same time, much basic research may not produce products that can be sold, and thus might never be supported by business. A progressive science policy that combines both utilitarian science, and inexpensive basic science and technology development can thus help people quite a bit.

When public policy and large financial or other stakes are in the balance, vested interests will often resort to "junk science" to support their positions. But few among the general public can judge whether science is junk or not. Many people choose simply to disregard the results of any research that was not conducted and paid for by disinterested parties, a tactic that often excludes most or all of the scientific evidence that exists on an issue.

Consider the following example. A company is releasing a chemical into a stream. Environmentalists offer "scientific evidence" that the chemical is harmful in the amounts being released. The company offers "scientific evidence" that the release is harmless. Unable to evaluate the science, the public is liable to weigh the evidence according to their prejudices--for example, that companies or that environmentalists are never to be trusted. In the face of such disputes, the government may call for an independent scientific assessment. But this is not so tidy a solution as it looks. A dispute may then erupt regarding the composition of the assessment committee, whether about the independence of particular scientists or about the balance between committee members who tend toward one side or the other. See the related article on the scientific method.

See also

Last updated: 10-22-2005 08:17:07
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