Categorizing Public 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 diffused 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 offer 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). (March 1, 2016). 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.

An image of the construction of a bridge for a railroad.
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.

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 off the land.”

The Hoover Dam: The Federal Effort to Domesticate the Colorado River

As westward expansion led to development of the American Southwest, settlers increasingly realized that they needed a way to control the frequent floods and droughts that made agriculture difficult in the region. As early as 1890, land speculators had tried diverting the Colorado River for this purpose, but it wasn’t until 1922 that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (then called the Reclamation Service) chose the Black Canyon as a good location for a dam to divert the river. Since it would affect seven states (as well as Mexico), the federal government took the lead on the project, which eventually cost $49 million and more than one hundred lives. The dam faced significant opposition from members of other states, who felt its massive price tag (almost $670 million in today’s dollars (March 1, 2016).) benefitted only a small group, not the whole nation. However, in 1928, Senator Hiram Johnson and Representative Phil Swing, both Republicans from California, won the day. Congress passed the Boulder Canyon Project Act, authorizing the construction of one of the most ambitious engineering feats in U.S. history. The Hoover Dam (Figure), completed in 1935, served the dual purposed of generating hydroelectric power and irrigating two million acres of land from the resulting reservoir (Lake Mead).

An image of workers constructing the Hoover Dam.
Workers construct the Hoover Dam, a distributive policy project, in Nevada in 1932.

Was the construction of the Hoover Dam an effective expression of public policy? Why or why not?

Link to learning graphic

Visit this site to see how the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) presented the construction of the Hoover Dam. How would you describe the bureau’s perspective?

American Rivers is an advocacy group whose goal is to protect and restore rivers, including the Colorado River. How does this group’s view of the Hoover Dam differ from that of the USBR?

Other examples of distributive policy support citizens’ efforts 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 diffuse costs and concentrated benefits, regulatory policy features the opposite arrangement, with concentrated costs and diffuse 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 effective 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.

In the United States, nationwide calls for a more robust regulatory policy first grew loud around the turn of the twentieth century and the dawn of the Industrial Age. Investigative journalists—called muckrakers by politicians and business leaders who were the focus of their investigations—began to expose many of the ways in which manufacturers were abusing the public trust. Although various forms of corruption topped the list of abuses, among the most famous muckraker exposés was The Jungle, a 1906 novel by Upton Sinclair that focused on unsanitary working conditions and unsavory business practices in the meat-packing industry.Upton Sinclair. 1906. The Jungle. New York: Grosset and Dunlap. This work and others like it helped to spur the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) and ultimately led to the creation of government agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (March 1, 2016). The nation’s experiences during the depression of 1896 and the Great Depression of the 1930s also led to more robust regulatory policies designed to improve the transparency of financial markets and prevent monopolies from forming.

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 different groups bear the costs and enjoy the benefits. Most redistributive policies are intended to have a sort of “Robin Hood” effect; 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.