What is Public Policy?

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.