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When Effect Becomes Cause: Policy Feedback and Political Change

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 June 2011

Paul Pierson
Harvard University
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As governmental activity has expanded, scholars have been increasingly inclined to suggest that the structure of public policies has an important influence on patterns of political change. Yet research on policy feedback is mostly anecdotal, and there has so far been little attempt to develop more general hypotheses about the conditions under which policies produce politics. Drawing on recent research, this article suggests that feedback occurs through two main mechanisms. Policies generate resources and incentives for political actors, and they provide those actors with information and cues that encourage particular interpretations of the political world. These mechanisms operate in a variety of ways, but have significant effects on government elites, interest groups, and mass publics. By investigating how policies influence different actors through these distinctive mechanisms, the article outlines a research agenda for moving from the current focus on illustrative case studies to the investigation of broader propositions about how and when policies are likely to be politically consequential.

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Copyright © Trustees of Princeton University 1993

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59 For those uninterested in the roots of current politics, policy feedback arguments may nonetheless be useful. The fact that such political consequences of policy design are likely to be discernible to policymakers raises an additional issue that deserves attention: the extent to which decision makers self-consciously design policies to produce particular feedback effects. Especially as government activity becomes widespread, politicians are likely to become aware that policy choices have political consequences. This suggests that feedback effects should not only be incorporated into political analysis because previous policies influence current politics. Current political struggles may well reflect concern over the future political consequences of contemporary policy choices. Cognizance of the possible range of such consequences may give analysts important insights into the strategic choices facing contemporary political actors.

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61 It is probably no coincidence that the two significant efforts to develop “policies produce politics” typologies have been developed in American politics rather than comparative politics, which allows Lowi and Wilson at least to attempt to “hold constant” elements of the broader political environment. Instructively, Elizabeth Sanders's study of natural gas regulation argues that Lowi's typology starts to break down when one studies the dynamics of policy struggles over time. “Regulatory” policy seems to produce different politics in different historical contexts. Sanders, , The Regulation of Natural Gas: Policy and Politics 1938–1978 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981).Google Scholar

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