What is Public Policy?

Learning Objective

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Discuss the underlying controversies in making public policy


Cornerstone of the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin, Texas
Figure 11.1 The Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin, Texas. The Texas Public Policy Foundation is a 501(c)3 non-profit research institute that was created to "promote and defend liberty, personal responsibility, and free enterprise in Texas and the nation by educating and affecting policymakers and the Texas public policy debate with academically sound research and outreach." Image credit: Robyn License: CC BY

It is easy to imagine that when designers engineer a product, like a car, they do so with the intent of satisfying the consumer. But the design of any complicated product must take into account the needs of regulators, transporters, assembly line workers, parts suppliers, and myriad other participants in the manufacture and shipment process. And manufacturers must also be aware that consumer tastes are fickle: A gas-guzzling sports car may appeal to an unmarried twenty- something with no children; but what happens to product satisfaction when gas prices fluctuate, or the individual gets married and has children?

In many ways, the process of designing policy isn’t that much dierent. The government, just like auto companies, needs to ensure that its citizen-consumers have access to an array of goods and services. And just as in auto companies, a wide range of actors is engaged in figuring out how to do it. Sometimes, this process eectively provides policies that benefit citizens. But just as often, the process of policymaking is muddied by the demands of competing interests with dierent opinions about society’s needs or the role that government should play in meeting them. To understand why, we begin by thinking about what we mean by the term “public policy.”

Public Policy Defined

One approach to thinking about public policy is to see it as the broad strategy the government uses to do its job. More formally, it is the relatively stable set of purposive governmental actions that address matters of concern to some part of society. This description is useful in that it helps to explain both what public policy is and what it isn’t. First, public policy is a guide to legislative action that is more or less fixed for long periods of time, not just short-term fixes or single legislative acts. Policy also doesn’t happen by accident, and it is rarely formed simply as the result of the campaign promises of a single elected ocial, even the governor.

Public policy can be complicated and controversial; deciding what works best and how to allocate resources to achieve a policy goal can involve multiple trade- os. While elected ocials are often important in shaping policy, most policy outcomes are the result of considerable debate, compromise, and refinement that happen over years and are finalized only after input from multiple institutions within government as well as from interest groups and the public.

Consider the example of government health care expansion. A follower of politics in the news media may come away thinking the reforms implemented in 2010 were as sudden as they were sweeping, having been developed in the final weeks before they were enacted. The reality is that expanding health care access by the government had actually been a priority of the Democratic Party for several decades. What may have seemed like a policy developed over a period of months was in fact formed after years of analysis, reflection upon existing policy, and even trial implementation of similar types of programs at the state level.

Remember that the policies of the federal government often have a direct consequence for Texas. Texas led other states in an eort to combat the federal government's eorts to take over the healthcare industry by the Obama administration's program. Even before passage of the Aordable Care Act (ACA; 2010), which expanded health care coverage to millions and of the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act (HCERA; 2010), more than 50 percent of all healthcare expenditures in the United States already came from federal government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Several House and Senate members from both parties along with First Lady Hillary Clinton had proposed significant expansions in federal health care policy during the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton, providing a number of dierent options for any eventual health care overhaul. Much of what became the ACA was drawn from proposals originally developed at the state level, by none other than Obama’s 2012 Republican presidential opponent Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts.

This story illustrates an important aspect of policy, Republicans are not all the same. Republicans in Texas tend to be more conservative than Republicans in other parts of the country. This simply means that policy differences or preferences can occur within a political party. Likewise, Democrats in Texas tend to be more conservative than other parts of the country.

In addition to being thoughtful and generally stable, public policy deals with issues of concern to some large segment of society, as opposed to matters of interest only to individuals or a small group of people. Governments frequently interact with individual actors like citizens, corporations, or other countries. They may even pass highly specialized pieces of legislation, known as private bills, which confer specific privileges on individual entities. But public policy covers only those issues that are of interest to larger segments of society or that directly or indirectly aect society as a whole. Paying o the loans of a specific individual would not be public policy, but creating a process for loan forgiveness available to certain types of borrowers (such as those who provide a public service by becoming teachers) would certainly rise to the level of public policy.

A final important characteristic of public policy is that it is more than just the actions of government; it also includes the behaviors or outcomes that government action creates. Policy can even be made when government refuses to act in ways that would change the status quo when circumstances or public opinion begin to shift. For example, much of the debate over gun control policy

in the United States has centered on the unwillingness of Congress to act, even in the face of public opinion that supports some changes to gun control policy. In fact, one of the last major changes occurred in 2004, when lawmakers’ inaction resulted in the expiration of a piece of legislation known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (1994). Of course, this is relevant to Texas given the culture for freedom and self defense.

Public Policy as Outcomes

Governments rarely want to keep their policies a secret. Elected ocials want to be able to take credit for the things they have done to help their constituents, and their opponents are all too willing to cast blame when policy initiatives fail. We can therefore think of policy as the formal expression of what elected or appointed ocials are trying to accomplish. In passing the HCERA (2010), Congress declared its policy through an act that directed how it would appropriate money. The president can also implement or change policy through an executive order, which oers instructions about how to implement law under his or her discretion. Finally, policy changes can come as a result of court actions or opinions, such as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), which formally ended school segregation in the United States.

Typically, elected and even high-ranking appointed ocials lack either the specific expertise or tools needed to successfully create and implement public policy on their own. They turn instead to the vast government bureaucracy to provide policy guidance. For example, when Congress passed the Clean Water Act (1972), it dictated that steps should be taken to improve water quality throughout the country. But it ultimately left it to the bureaucracy to figure out exactly how ‘clean’ water needed to be. In doing so, Congress provided the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with discretion to determine how much pollution is allowed in U.S. waterways.

There is one more way of thinking about policy outcomes: in terms of winners and losers. Almost by definition, public policy promotes certain types of behavior while punishing others. So, the individuals or corporations that a policy favors are most likely to benefit, or win, whereas those the policy ignores or punishes are likely to lose. Even the best-intended policies can have unintended consequences and may even ultimately harm someone, if only those who must pay for the policy through higher taxes.

For example, a policy designed to encourage students to go to liberal arts colleges may cause trade school enrollment to decline. Strategies to promote diversity in higher education may make it more dicult for qualified white or male applicants to get accepted into competitive programs. Eorts to clean up drinking water supplies may make companies less competitive and cost employees their livelihood. Even something that seems to help everyone, such as promoting charitable giving through tax incentives, runs the risk of lowering tax revenues from the rich (who contribute a greater share of their income to charity) and shifting tax burdens to the poor (who must spend a higher share of their income to achieve a desired standard of living). And while policy pronouncements and bureaucratic actions are certainly meant to rationalize policy, it is whether a given policy helps or hurts constituents (or is perceived to do so) that ultimately determines how voters will react toward the government in future elections.

Finding a Middle Ground: The Social Safety Net

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the United States created a set of policies and programs that constituted a social safety net for the millions who had lost their jobs, their homes, and their savings (Figure 11.2). Under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the federal government began programs like the Work Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps to combat unemployment and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation to refinance Depression-related mortgage debts. The Texas Department of Public Welfare was established in 1939 during the New Deal. As the eects of the Depression eased, the government phased out many of these programs. Other programs, like Social Security or the minimum wage, remain a part of the way the federal government redistributes wealth among members of its population. The federal government has also added further social support programs, like Medicaid, Medicare, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, to ensure a baseline or minimal standard of living for all, even in the direst of times.

Families in Calipatria, California, waiting in line for relief checks
Figure 11.2 In 1937, during the Great Depression, families in Calipatria, California, waited in line for relief checks, part of the federal government’s newly introduced social safety net. Image credit: modification of work by the Library of Congress.

In recent decades, however, some have criticized these safety net programs for ineciency and for incentivizing welfare dependence. They deride “government leeches” who use food stamps to buy lobster or other seemingly inappropriate items. Critics deeply resent the use of taxpayer money to relieve social problems like unemployment and poverty; workers who may themselves be struggling to put food on the table or pay the mortgage feel their hard-earned money should not support other families. “If I can get by without government support,” the reasoning goes, “those welfare families can do the same. Their poverty is not my problem.”

As for Texas, roughly 14 percent of Texas residents received Social Security benefits as of December 2016, according to the Social Security Administration. That translates to approximately 4 million people in Texas who received Social Security disbursements related to retirement, survivors, or disability benefits. About 2.9 million people in Texas were receiving retirement benefits. Of Texas’ estimated 3.4 million people aged 65 or older, about 87 percent received Social Security benefits, which is lower than this figure for the United States as a whole (which is roughly 90 percent). Benefits in Texas totaled roughly $4.85 billion for the month of December 2016, per the Social Security Administration. That works out to an average benefit of $1,206 for that month.

So where should the government draw the line? While there have been some instances of welfare fraud, the welfare reforms of the 1990s have made long-term dependence on the federal government less likely as the welfare safety net was pushed to the states. And with the income gap between the richest and the poorest at its highest level in history, this topic is likely to continue to receive much discussion in the coming years.

Question: Where is the middle ground in the public policy argument over the social safety net? How can the Texas government protect its most vulnerable citizens without placing an undue burden on others?


Categorizing Public Policy

The idea of public policy is by its very nature a politically contentious one. Among the dierences between American liberals and conservatives are the policy preferences prevalent in each group. Modern liberals tend to feel very comfortable with the idea of the government shepherding progressive social and economic reforms, believing that these will lead to outcomes more equitable and fair for all members of society. Conservatives, on the other hand, often find government involvement onerous and overreaching. They feel society would function more eciently if oversight of most “public” matters were returned to  the private sphere. Before digging too deeply into a discussion of the nature of public policy, let us look first at why so many aspects of society come under the umbrella of public policy to begin with.

Different Types of Goods

This Library of Congress photo shows an early nineteenth- century subsistence farm in West Virginia
Figure 11.3 This Library of Congress photo shows an early nineteenth- century subsistence farm in West Virginia, which once included crops, livestock, and an orchard. (credit: modification of work by the Library of Congress)

Think for a minute about what it takes to make people happy and satisfied. As we live our daily lives, we experience a range of physical, psychological, and social needs that must be met in order for us to be happy and productive. At the very least, we require food, water, and shelter. In very basic subsistence societies, people acquire these through farming crops, digging wells, and creating shelter from local materials. People also need social interaction with others and the ability to secure goods they acquire, lest someone else try to take them. As their tastes become more complex, they may find it advantageous to exchange their items for others; this requires not only a mechanism for barter but also a system of transportation. The more complex these systems are, the greater the range of items people can access to keep them alive and make them happy. However, this increase in possessions also creates a stronger need to secure what they have acquired.

Economists use the term goods to describe the range of commodities, services, and systems that help us satisfy our wants or needs. This term can certainly apply to the food you eat or the home you live in, but it can also describe the systems of transportation or public safety used to protect them. Most of the goods you interact with in your daily life are private goods, which means that they can be owned by a particular person or group of people, and are excluded from use by others, typically by means of a price. For example, your home or apartment is a private good reserved for your own use because you pay rent or make mortgage payments for the right to live there. Further, private goods are finite and can run out if overused, even if only in the short term. The fact that private goods are excludable and finite makes them tradable. A farmer who grows corn, for instance, owns that corn, and since only a finite amount of corn exists, others may want to trade their goods for it if their own food supplies begin to dwindle.

Proponents of free-market economics believe that the market forces of supply and demand, working minimal government involvement, are the most eective way for markets to operate. The primary purpose of the government in this system is secure property rights. One of the basic principles of free-market economics is that for just about any good that can be privatized, the most ecient means for exchange is the marketplace. A well-functioning market will allow producers of goods to come together with consumers of goods to negotiate a trade. People facilitate trade by creating a currency—a common unit of exchange—so they do not need to carry around everything they may want to trade at all times. As long as there are several providers or sellers of the same good, consumers can negotiate with them to find a price they are willing to pay. As long as there are several buyers for a seller’s goods, providers can negotiate with them to find a price buyers are willing to accept. And, the logic goes, if prices begin to rise too much, other sellers will enter the marketplace, oering lower prices.

A second basic principle of free-market economics is that it is largely unnecessary for the government to protect the value of private goods. Farmers who own land used for growing food have a vested interest in protecting their land to ensure its continued production. Business owners must protect the reputation of their business or no one will buy from them. And, to the degree that producers need to ensure the quality of their product or industry, they can accomplish that by creating a group or association that operates outside government control. In short, industries have an interest in self-regulating to protect their own value. According to free-market economics, as long as everything we could ever want or need is a private good, and so long as every member of society has some ability to provide for themselves and their families, public policy regulating the exchange of goods and services is really unnecessary.

Some people in the United States argue that the self-monitoring and self- regulating incentives provided by the existence of private goods mean that sound public policy requires very little government action. Known as libertarians, these individuals believe government almost always operates less eciently than the private sector (the segment of the economy run for profit and not under government control), and that government actions should therefore be kept to a minimum.

Even as many in the United States recognize the benefits provided by private goods, we have increasingly come to recognize problems with the idea that all social problems can be solved by exclusively private ownership. First, not all goods can be classified as strictly private. Can you really consider the air you breathe to be private? Air is a dicult good to privatize because it is not excludable—everyone can get access to it at all times—and no matter how much of it you breathe, there is still plenty to go around. Geographic regions like forests have environmental, social, recreational, and aesthetic value that cannot easily be reserved for private ownership. Resources like migrating birds or schools of fish may have value if hunted or fished, but they cannot be owned due to their migratory nature. Finally, national security provided by the armed forces protects all citizens and cannot reasonably be reserved for only a few.

These are all examples of what economists call public goods, sometimes referred to as collective goods. Unlike private property, they are not excludable and are essentially infinite. Forests, water, and fisheries, however, are a type of public good called common goods, which are not excludable but may be finite. The problem with both public and common goods is that since no one owns them, no one has a financial interest in protecting their long-term or future value. Without government regulation, a factory owner can feel free to pollute the air or water, since he or she will have no responsibility for the pollution once the winds or waves carry it somewhere else (see Figure 11.4). Without government regulation, someone can hunt all the migratory birds or deplete a fishery by taking all the fish, eliminating future breeding stocks that would maintain the population. The situation in which individuals exhaust a common resource by acting in their own immediate self-interest is called the tragedy of the commons.

Air pollution billows from a power plant before the installation of emission control equipment
Figure 11.4 Air pollution billows from a power plant before the installation of emission control equipment for the removal of sulfur dioxide and particulate matter. Can you see why uncontrolled pollution is an example of the “tragedy of the commons”?

A second problem with strict adherence to free-market economics is that some goods are too large, or too expensive, for individuals to provide them for themselves. Consider the need for a marketplace: Where does the marketplace come from? How do we get the goods to market? Who provides the roads and bridges? Who patrols the waterways? Who provides security? Who ensures the regulation of the currency? No individual buyer or seller could accomplish this. The very nature of the exchange of private goods requires a system that has some of the openness of public or common goods, but is maintained by either groups of individuals or entire societies.

Economists consider goods like cable TV, cellphone service, and private schools to be toll goods. Toll goods are similar to public goods in that they are open to all and theoretically infinite if maintained, but they are paid for or provided by some outside (nongovernment) entity. Many people can make use of them, but only if they can pay the price. The name “toll goods” comes from the fact that, early on, many toll roads were in fact privately owned commodities. Even today, states from Virginia to California have allowed private companies to build public roads in exchange for the right to profit by charging tolls.

So long as land was plentiful, and most people in the United States lived a largely rural subsistence lifestyle, the dierence between private, public, common, and toll goods was mostly academic. But as public lands increasingly became private through sale and settlement, and as industrialization and the rise of mass production allowed monopolies and oligopolies to become more influential, support for public policies regulating private entities grew. By the beginning of the twentieth century, led by the Progressives, the United States had begun to search for ways to govern large businesses that had managed to distort market forces by monopolizing the supply of goods. And, largely as a result of the Great Depression, people wanted ways of developing and protecting public goods that were fairer and more equitable than had existed before.

These forces and events led to the increased regulation of public and common goods, and a move for the public sector—the government—to take over of the provision of many toll goods.

Classic Types of Policy

Public policy, then, ultimately boils down to determining the distribution, allocation, and enjoyment of public, common, and toll goods within a society. While the specifics of policy often depend on the circumstances, two broad questions all policymakers must consider are a) who pays the costs of creating and maintaining the goods, and b) who receives the benefits of the goods? When private goods are bought and sold in a market place, the costs and benefits go to the participants in the transaction. Your landlord benefits from receipt of the rent you pay, and you benefit by having a place to live. But non-private goods like roads, waterways, and national parks are controlled and regulated by someone other than the owners, allowing policymakers to make decisions about who pays and who benefits.

In 1964, Theodore Lowi argued that it was possible to categorize policy based upon the degree to which costs and benefits were concentrated on the few or diused across the many. One policy category, known as distributive policy, tends to collect payments or resources from many but concentrates direct benefits on relatively few. Highways are often developed through distributive policy. Distributive policy is also common when society feels there is a social benefit to individuals obtaining private goods such as higher education that oer long-term benefits, but the upfront cost may be too high for the average citizen. One example of the way distributive policy works is the story of the Transcontinental Railroad. In the 1860s, the U.S. government began to recognize the value of building a robust railroad system to move passengers and freight around the country. A particular goal was connecting California and the other western territories acquired during the 1840s war with Mexico to the rest of the country. The problem was that constructing a nationwide railroad system was a costly and risky proposition. To build and support continuous rail lines, private investors would need to gain access to tens of thousands of miles of land, some of which might be owned by private citizens. The solution was to charter two private corporations—the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads—and provide them with resources and land grants to facilitate the construction of the railroads (see Figure 11.5).Through these grants, publicly owned land was distributed to private citizens, who could then use it for their own gain. However, a broader public gain was simultaneously being provided in the form of a nationwide transportation network.

Texas continues to have more railroad mileage than any other state and the largest number of railroad employees. In 1992 chemicals accounted for thirty percent of the railroad tonnage originating in the state, while agricultural products, the leading category during the early years, accounted for only seven percent. Coal represented the largest category of rail tonnage terminating in Texas. The state is second only to Virginia with its extensive coal shipping piers in the amount of coal terminated. https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/eqr01.

Union Pacific Workers construct the Devil’s Gate Bridge in Utah in 1869
Figure 11.5 In an example of distributive policy, the Union Pacific Railroad was given land and resources to help build a national railroad system. Here, its workers construct the Devil’s Gate Bridge in Utah in 1869
A quote from Sam Houston in 1858 on the importance of transportation
Figure 11.6 Transportation often comes about through distributive policy. Image credit: Jean Downs License: CC BY

The same process operates in the agricultural sector, where various federal programs help farmers and food producers through price supports and crop insurance, among other forms of assistance. These programs help individual farmers and agriculture companies stay afloat and realize consistent profits. They also achieve the broader goal of providing plenty of sustenance for the people of the United States, so that few of us have to “live o the land.”

Other examples of distributive policy support citizens’ eorts to achieve “the American Dream.” American society recognizes the benefits of having citizens who are financially invested in the country’s future. Among the best ways to encourage this investment are to ensure that citizens are highly educated and have the ability to acquire high-cost private goods such as homes and businesses. However, very few people have the savings necessary to pay upfront for a college education, a first home purchase, or the start-up costs of a business. To help out, the government has created a range of incentives that everyone in the country pays for through taxes but that directly benefit only the recipients. Examples include grants (such as Pell grants), tax credits and deductions, and subsidized or federally guaranteed loans. Each of these programs aims to achieve a policy outcome. Pell grants exist to help students graduate from college, whereas Federal Housing Administration mortgage loans lead to home ownership.

While distributive policy, according to Lowi, has diuse costs and concentrated benefits, regulatory policy features the opposite arrangement, with concentrated costs and diuse benefits. A relatively small number of groups or individuals bear the costs of regulatory policy, but its benefits are expected to be distributed broadly across society. As you might imagine, regulatory policy is most eective for controlling or protecting public or common resources. Among the best-known examples are policies designed to protect public health and safety, and the environment. These regulatory policies prevent manufacturers or businesses from maximizing their profits by excessively polluting the air or water, selling products they know to be harmful, or compromising the health of their employees during production.

A final type of policy is redistributive policy, so named because it redistributes resources in society from one group to another. That is, according to Lowi, the costs are concentrated and so are the benefits, but dierent groups bear the costs and enjoy the benefits. Most redistributive policies are intended to have a sort of “Robin Hood” eect; their goal is to transfer income and wealth from one group to another such that everyone enjoys at least a minimal standard of living. Typically, the wealthy and middle class pay into the federal tax base, which then funds need-based programs that support low-income individuals and families.

A few examples of redistributive policies are Head Start (education), Medicaid (health care), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, income support), and food programs like the Supplementary Nutritional Aid Program (SNAP). The government also uses redistribution to incentivize specific behaviors or aid small groups of people. Pell grants to encourage college attendance and tax credits to encourage home ownership are other examples of redistribution.

Link to Learning

The Public Policy Project on Ballotpedia aims to illuminate major policy issues being discussed and implemented throughout the United States. Public policy can be complicated and controversial; deciding what works best and how to allocate resources to achieve a policy goal can involve multiple trade-os. Much of the public policy that aects citizens economically, legally and socially, is made at the state level.

Explore links and introductions to public policy in Texas to Texas public policy articles on Ballotpedia.

References and Further Reading

Texas Public Policy Foundation. Accessed September 10, 2019.

James E. Anderson. 2000. Public Policymaking: An Introduction, 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Miin.

Kaiser Family Foundation (2009). National Health Insurance—A Brief History of Reform Eorts in the U.S. Accessed September 10, 2019.

CBS Boston (2013, November). Romneycare vs. Obamacare: Key Similarities & Dierences. Retrieved on October 22, 2019.

E. E. Schattschneider (1960). The Semi-Sovereign People. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Plumer, B. (2012, December). Everything you need to know about the assault weapons ban, in one post. Washington Post.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

Scroggin, A. (2018). On Social Security’s anniversary, let’s look at what it means for Texans today. AARP. Retrieved on October 22, 2019.

Mildenberg, D. (2013, November 26). Private Toll Road Investors Shift Revenue Risk to States. Bloomberg. Retrieved on October 22, 2019.

History (2019, September 11). Transcontinental Railroad.