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The Quest for Policy

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard Clay Wilson, Jr.
April 24, 2015

The classic academic concept of politics holds that politicians practice “statecraft” when they overcome political obstacles and promulgate merit-based policies. Reflective of this view, we call on politicians to rise above political selfishness and act on the merits. Schools of public policy dedicate themselves to studying just what acting on the merits would entail.

This perspective tells us that most political results reflect the pursuit of advantage that transpires in the political arena. Only a select few results reflect what we regard as the more noble pursuit of policy. It may be worthwhile to examine the differences between these two kinds of products. Two examples will serve the purpose.

Consider the 10-volume Internal Revenue Code (IRC). If we search for policies there, we can find as many as we want. For example, we take for granted that the mortgage interest deduction represents a policy choice to promote home ownership, while the deductibility of contributions to nonprofits represents a policy choice to promote those contributions. On the other hand, we also take for granted that hundreds of tax breaks represent no more than the raw pursuit of advantage.

But can we really tell the difference between these two pursuits? It takes no particular prowess to offer policy reasons for conferring advantage. A quick perusal of the IRC demonstrates the impossibility of distinguishing between the making of policy and the conferring of advantage.

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Let’s ask the same questions about the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Depending on one’s point of view, the adoption of the ACA was either a policy triumph or defeat. Either way, it surely qualifies as a policy within our framework. A typical book of the ACA’s length, however, would be over 1,000 pages and the regulations promulgated to implement it are 30 times longer. Searching for policies in these materials is exactly like searching for policies in the tax code. It is impossible for anyone to say with authority what qualifies as policy and what reflects the pursuit of advantage.

We are stuck. There is no possible way to distinguish policy content in our examples. No one thinks that every sentence constitutes policy. But no one can separate sentences of policy from those of advantage. Where, exactly, are we to find the policy achievements in these political products?

The best answer may be that policy achievements reside in acts of approval but not in the detailed content. Applying this view, we would say that while it has been the policy of the U.S. Government for 100 years to levy an income tax; the content of the IRC is of lesser moment. Similarly, we would say that while it has been the policy of the U.S. Government since 2010 to have a national, private insurance-based health system, the content of the Affordable Care Act is also of lesser moment. The same would be said of other policy achievements.

Policy as acts of approval, including broad purposes but not including volumes of text, is consistent with the nature of elections, in which politicians are accountable for being for or against, but not for detail. It is also consistent with what we know about how groups work. It is exceedingly difficult for small groups, and all but impossible for large ones, to create detailed, consistent, intellectually purposeful products (i.e., policies).

If we return to Lawrence M. Meade’s concept of statecraft, we find it in the adoption of purposes but not in the plethora of texts that accompany those purposes. The vast texts of government are manifestations of the political process. But they rarely meet the academic definition of statecraft or policy.

Recognizing this is freeing in many important respects. I will note just two. First, it subordinates the importance of voluminous detail to larger purposes, revealing the schism between concepts of policy and actual political outcomes. Second, it repudiates the notion that policy intentions are embedded in everything ever approved through the political arena. This notion that permeates government is manifestly false.

What to do with these realizations is a subject for another day.


Author: Richard Clay Wilson, Jr. is a retired city manager with 38 years of local government experience. He is the author of the book Rethinking Public Administration: The Case for Management.

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