The Limits of Public Policy

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Public confidence has eroded since the administration of President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in November, 1963. The ultimately unpopular and intensely divisive Viet Nam War was prosecuted by Presidents Lyndon Johnson, a liberal Democrat, and by Richard Nixon, a conservative Republican --- the labels and party affiliation give way to stubborn realities. The Watergate scandal soon followed, driving President Richard Nixon from office in disgrace. All this rapidly diminished popular confidence in government exhibited by the attenuated Kennedy presidency.

Since the late 1970's, starting during the Carter administration and intensifying later with the Reagan and Bush administrations, expectations about the role of government in society have declined considerably and sensitivity to increasing taxes has heightened. The scandals and impeachment trial of the Clinton administration increased exasperation, even though President Clinton continued to display a high approval rating. An example of a casualty of this plunge in public confidence, intensifying factious controversy, and mass distraction has been the failed health coverage initiative of the Clinton presidency. A national energy policy never got off the ground. Then 9/11 and Katrina shook confidence even more profoundly. Even the din of a contested health policy under President Barack Obama has not quieted down. The Great Recession of 2008, with accompanying bail-outs of banks and auto companies, has further eroded confidence in government.

Public policy has rightly been presented as paralyzed and unable to cope with the demands, complexities, and challenges of a diverse society with a federated government in a globalized era. Mass confusion and controversy over how to cope with epic recession and financial implosion of 2008-2009 has deepened that despair.

Although public policy can certainly be improved and public trust can be enhanced, we should not expect too much or become too exuberant over the prospects of public policy --- attitudes commonly attributed to pro-Big-Government liberals and repugnant to conservatives. Consider these inherent limits to the effectiveness of public policy and to its productive analysis:

  1. Limits to the capabilities of government: All manner of reform may not achieve a consensus around solving such intractable problems as poverty, lack of educational achievement, and how to guard against all conceivable terrorist tactics. Physical, social, and economic factors may simply exceed the capacity of our government to adequately address some kind of problems. Such intractable difficulties have been called wicked problems -- as opposed to ill-defined problems. A popular aphorism on wisdom advises:

    "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference" (Reinhold Neibuhr).

    Unemployment, poverty, and inequality, for example, might derive from the larger economic system, stubbornly resisting governmental remedy. Remember Malthus.

  2. Financial limits to the support of public policy: Since the late 1970's, widespread attention and alarm at growing government spending and accompanying deficits have dampened enthusiasm for new, broad, expensive policy initiatives -- the Starve the Beast conservative strategy. The clumsy and ineffective forays by Hillary Clinton into national health policy suffered from a stiff backlash against government growth and the intrusion of a new, expensive federal bureaucracy. Obama passed a health care overhaul, the Affordable Care Act, but the process was not pretty. Such policies are very expensive, tax increases are unpopular, and bureaucracy detested. The standard remedy to many social problems is to promote more economic growth, but, as we will see in part two of this course, economic growth may soon be constrained by resource depletion and ecosystem collapse.

  3. Funding scarcity for policy research: Much of policy is determined and implemented on the fly with little research or analysis brought to bear. Typically, public hearings are conducted, at which experts --- often grounded in the status quo --- are invited to testify on aspects of the problem being addressed. Interest groups often control the information and the expertise, providing a biased presentation. While the size and capacity of government staff in legislatures and administrative agencies has burgeoned, staff is not immune to bias nor have all the answers --- and is subject to lobbying and selection bias in information sources. In addition to the expense of policy research, such activities may take a long time while there is pressure to act in a hurry. Another difficulty in policy research is the phenomenon of the Hawthorne effect: merely studying human behavior or calling attention to it may often change that behavior. Our ability to conduct policy research is often limited to opportunities to conduct inferential research. Rare is a laboratory for, say, economic policy. The clash of opinion and terminology (not science) over policy responses to climate change provides an enduring example.

  4. Clashing values: American society, in particular, is highly diverse and contentious. We are proud of our tradition of tolerance of religion, speech, and cultural diversity. Yet, these are the bases of many of our disagreements over values, and values are central to public policy-making. For example: What are the goals of education? Improved test scores? Better citizenship --- whatever that might mean? Job readiness? Policy research cannot by itself clarify or resolve value conflicts.

  5. Limits to our knowledge: Social science research has much to do before policy makers can be confident in the stock of knowledge which is available to guide sound policy decisions or to even assess the alternatives available. The rate of social change seems to be accelerating, overwhelming general rules of thumb and unexamined off-hand beliefs about our complex world. And even with an information explosion, the sheer ability to analyze and predict the likely and unintended effects of policy prescriptions remains inadequate. So prudence suggests sitting pat and not doing anything --- benign neglect.

These are just some of the limits to policy initiatives. Can you think of others?

The Public Policy Cycle Web Site | Page: © Wayne Hayes, Ph.D. | ™ ProfWork |
Initialized: May 22, 2001 | Last Update: May 28, 2014