Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-nr4z6 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-05-23T08:49:32.595Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Searching for Good Policies

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 November 2011

Stanford University
Steven Callander is Associate Professor of Political Economy, Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, Knight Management Center, 655 Knight Way, Stanford, CA 94305 (


Policymaking is hard. Policymakers typically have imperfect information about which policies produce which outcomes, and they are left with little choice but to fumble their way through the policy space via a trial-and-error process. This raises a question at the heart of democracy: Do democratic systems identify good policies? To answer this question I introduce a novel model of policymaking in complex environments. I show that good policies are often but not always found and I identify the possibility of policymaking getting stuck at outcomes that are arbitrarily bad. Notably, policy stickiness occurs in the model even in the absence of institutional constraints. This raises the question of how institutions and the political environment impact experimentation and learning. I show how a simple political friction—uncertainty over voter preferences—interacts with political competition and policy uncertainty in a subtle way that, surprisingly, improves the quality of policymaking over time.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2011

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



Arrow, Kenneth J. 1951. Social Choice and Individual Values. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
Bartels, Larry M. 2008. Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Baumgartner, Frank R., and Jones, Bryan T.. 1991. “Agenda Dynamics and Policy Subsystems.” Journal of Politics 53 (November): 1044–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bendor, Jonathan. 1995. “A Model of Muddling Through.” American Political Science Review 89 (December): 819–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bendor, Jonathan. 2003. “Herbert A. Simon: Political Scientist.” Annual Review of Political Science 6: 433–71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bendor, Jonathan, Mookherjee, Dilip, and Ray, Debraj. 2006. “Satisficing and Selection in Electoral Competition.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 1 (2): 171200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bernhardt, Dan, Duggan, John, and Squintani, Francesco. 2009. “The Case for Responsible Parties.” American Political Science Review 103 (November): 570–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Black, D. 1958. The Theory of Committees and Elections. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Boulding, Kenneth. 1964. “Review of A Strategy of Decision, by David Braybrooke and Charles Lindblom.” American Sociological Review 29: 930–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Braybrooke, David, and Lindblom, Charles. 1963. A Behavioral Theory of the Firm. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
Callander, Steven. 2008. “A Theory of Policy Expertise.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 3 (2): 123–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Callander, Steven. 2008b. “Political Motivations.” Review of Economic Studies 75: 671–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Callander, Steven. N.d.. “Searching and Learning by Trial and Error.” American Economic Review. Forthcoming.Google Scholar
Calvert, Randall L. 1985. “Robustness of the Multidimensional Voting Model: Candidates’ Motivations, Uncertainty and Convergence.” American Journal of Political Science 29: 1056–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Canes-Wrone, Brandice, Herron, Michael C., and Shotts, Kenneth W.. 2001. “Leadership and Pandering: A Theory of Executive Policymaking.” American Journal of Political Science 45 (July): 532–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Carpenter, Daniel P. 2002. “Groups, the Media, Agency Waiting Costs, and FDA Drug Approval.” American Journal of Political Science 46 (July): 490505.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Carpenter, Daniel P. 2004. “Protection without Capture: Product Approval by a Politically Responsive, Learning Regulator.” American Political Science Review 98 (November): 613–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Clark, Gregory. 2007. A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Committee on Political Parties. 1950. “Toward a More Responsible Two-party System.” American Political Science Review 44 Supplement (September).Google Scholar
Duggan, J. 2000. “Repeated Elections with Asymmetric Information.” Economics and Politics 12 (July): 109–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Drazen, Allan, and Grilli, Vittorio. 1993. “The Benefit of Crisis for Economic Reforms.” American Economic Review 83 (June): 598607.Google Scholar
Enelow, James, and Hinich, Melvin J.. 1981. “A New Approach to Voter Uncertainty in the Downsian Spatial Model.” American Journal of Political Science 25 (August): 483–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Etzioni, Amitai. 1967. “Mixed Scanning: A ‘Third’ Approach to Decision Making.” Public Administration Review 27: 385–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Friedman, Benjamin M. 1984. “Lessons From the 1979–82 Monetary Policy Experiment.” American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings 74: 382–87.Google Scholar
Gilligan, Thomas, and Krehbiel, Keith. 1987. “Collective Decision Making and Standing Committees: An Informational Rationale for Restrictive Amendment Procedures.” Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 3 (2): 287335.Google Scholar
Gillon, Steven M. 2000. That's Not What We Meant to Do: Reform and Its Consequences in 20th Century America. New York: W.W. Norton.Google Scholar
Hall, Peter A. 1993. “Policy Paradigms, Social Learning, and the State.” Comparative Politics 25 (April): 275–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Heclo, Hugh. 1974. Modern Social Politics in Britain and Sweden. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Hotelling, Harold. 1929. “Stability in Competition.” Economic Journal 39 (March): 4157.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Keynes, John Maynard. 1936. The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. London: MacmillanGoogle Scholar
Kollman, Kenneth, Miller, John, and Page, Scott. 1992. “Adaptive Parties in Spatial Elections.” American Political Science Review 86 (December): 929–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kollman, Kenneth, Miller, John, and Page, Scott. 2000. “Decentralization and the Search for Policy Solutions.” Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 16 (April): 102–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lindblom, Charles. 1959. “The Science of ‘Muddling Through.’Public Administration Review 19: 7988.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Londregan, John, and Romer, Thomas. 1993. “Polarization, Incumbency, and the Personal Vote.” In Political Economy: Institutions, Competition, and Representation, eds. Barnett, W., Hinich, M., and Schofield, N.. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
McLennan, Andrew. 1984. “Price Dispersion and Incomplete Learning in the Long Run.” Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control 7: 331–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Merton, Robert K. 1936. “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action.” American Sociological Review 1 (December): 894904.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Messner, Matthias, and Polborn, Mattias. 2008. “The Option to Wait in Collective Decisions.”CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ober, Josiah. 2010. Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Page, Scott E. 2006. “Path Dependence.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 1 (1): 87115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Page, Scott E., and Zharinova, Natalia. 2006. “Can Electoral Competition Outperform a Social Planner?” University of Michigan. Unpublished manuscript.Google Scholar
Pierson, Paul. 2000. “Increasing Returns, Path Dependence, and the Study of Politics.” American Political Science Review 94 (June): 251–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pierson, Paul. 2004. Politics in Time: History, Institutions, and Social Analysis. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Piketty, Thomas. 1995. “Social Mobility and Redistributive Politics.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 110 (August): 551–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Simon, Herbert A. 1955. “A Behavioral Model of Rational Choice.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 69 (February): 99118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Simon, Herbert A. 1990. “Invariants of Human Behavior.” Annual Review of Psychology 41: 119.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Stokes, Donald E. 1963. “Spatial Models of Party Competition.” American Political Science Review 57 (June): 368–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Strulovici, Bruno. 2010. “Learning While Voting: Determinants of Collective Experimentation.” Econometrica 78 (May): 933–71.Google Scholar
Volden, Craig, Ting, Michael M., and Carpenter, Daniel P.. 2008. “A Formal Model of Learning and Policy Diffusion.” American Political Science Review 102 (August): 319–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wall Street Journal. 2008. “Rahm Emanuel on Opportunities of Crisis” (from Wall Street Journal CEO Council), November 19. (accessed September 15, 2011).Google Scholar
Wittman, Donald. 1983. “Candidate Motivation: A Synthesis of Alternative Theories.” American Political Science Review 77: 142–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar