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When Effect Becomes Cause: Policy Feedback and Political Change

  • Paul Pierson (a1)


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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1 Schattschneider, E. E., Politics, Pressures and the Tariff (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1935), 288.

2 For a range of “new institutionalise” analyses, see Evans, Peter B., Reuschemeyer, Dietrich, and Skocpol, Theda, eds., Bringing the State Back In (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); March, James G. and Olsen, Johan P., Rediscovering Institutions: The Organizational Basis of Politics (New York: Free Press, 1989); Shepsle, Kenneth A., “Studying Institutions: Some Lessons from the Rational Choice Approach,” Journal of Theoretical Politics 1 (April 1989); and Skowronek, Stephen, Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877–1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

3 In addition to the scholarship of Theda Skocpol reviewed in this essay, see, for example, Skowronek (fn. 2); Hall, Peter A., Governing the Economy: The Politics of State Intervention in Britain and France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986); and Steinmo, Sven, Thelen, Kathleen, and Longstreth, Frank, eds., Structuring Politics: Historical Institutionalism in Comparative Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

4 Walker, Jack L. Jr, Mobilizing Interest Groups in America: Patrons, Professions and Social Movements (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991), 54.

5 Margaret Weir and Theda Skocpol, “State Structures and the Possibilities for ‘Keynesian’ Responses to the Great Depression in Sweden, Britain and the United States,” in Evans, Reuschemeyer, and Skocpol (fn. 2), 143–44. The Farm Bureau's development has been widely linked to policy feedback, even by scholars not inclined to emphasize the independent role of government activity. In his classic study of interest groups, Mancur Olson argues that “the Farm Bureau was created by the government.” Olson, , The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), 149.Truman, David B. also identified “the aid of federal officials” as important in launching the Farm Bureau. Truman, The Governmental Process (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), 8793. Another policy feedback in agriculture, see also Moe, Terry M., The Organization of Interests: Incentives and the Internal Dynamics of Political Interest Groups (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 181–91; Valelly, Richard, Radicalism in the States: The Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party and the American Political Economy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989); and Hansen, John Mark, Gaining Access: Congress and the Farm Lobby, 1919–1981 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), chaps. 2–3.

6 Vogel, David, Fluctuating Fortunes: The Political Power of Business in America (New York: Basic Books, 1989), 1314.

7 On the importance of political entrepreneurs, see Mancur Olson (fn. 5); Hardin, Russell, Collective Action (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 3537; and Moe (fn. 5), 37–39.

8 See, for example, Day, Christine L., What Older Americans Think: Interest Groups and Aging Policy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990). Another to Kent Weaver for bringing this example to my attention.

9 Bo Rothstein, “Labor Market Institutions and Working-Class Strength,” in Steinmo, Thelen, and Longstreth (fn. 3).

10 Schmitter, Philippe and Lehmbruch, Gerhard, eds., Trends toward Corporatist Intermediation (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1979); Berger, Suzanne, ed., Organizing Interests in Western Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); and Goldthorpe, John H., ed., Order and Conflict in Contemporary Capitalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).

11 See, for example, Brittan, Samuel, The Role and Limits of Government: Essays in Political Economy (London: Temple Smith, 1983).

12 McConnell, Grant, Private Power and American Democracy (New York: Random House, 1966); Stigler, George J., “The Theory of Economic Regulation,” Bell Journal of Economics and Management Science 2 (Spring 1971).

13 For interesting discussions of path dependency, see Krasner, Stephen, “Approaches to the State: Alternative Conceptions and Historical Dynamics,” Comparative Politics 16 (January 1984); and Collier, Ruth Berins and Collier, David, Shaping the Political Agenda: Critical Junctures, the Labor Movement, and Regime Dynamics in Latin America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), chap. 1.

14 Duerst-Lahti, Georgia, “The Government's Role in Building the Women's Movement,” Political Science Quarterly 104 (Summer 1989).

15 Weir and Skocpol (fn. 5), 123–25, 129–32.

16 Ikenberry, G. John, Reasons of State: Oil Politics and the Capacities of American Government (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988).

17 Ibid., 44.

18 Anderson, Perry, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: Verso, 1974); Tilly, Charles, Coercion, Capital and European States, A.D. 990–1992 (Oxford and Cambridge: Black wells, 1992).

19 Katzenstein, Peter J., “Conclusion: Domestic Structures and Strategies of Foreign Economic Policy,” in Katzenstein, , ed., Between Power and Plenty: Foreign Economic Policies of Advanced Industrial States (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978); Zysman, John, Governments, Martlets and Growth: Financial Systems and the Politics of Industrial Change (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983).

20 For an analysis that suggests how such links might be drawn, see Swenson, Peter, “Labor and the Limits of the Welfare State: The Politics of Intraclass Conflict and Cross-Class Alliances in Sweden and West Germany,” Comparative Politics 23, no. 4 (1991). Another-Ander-sen himself did explore the political consequences of policy choices in an earlier work, Politics against Markets: The Social Democratic Road to Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985). This analysis is rather murky on the question of exactly how policy feedback influences political change. In Esping-Andersen's account policies seem to provide some combination of resources, material incentives, and cognitive signals that encourage certain patterns of political behavior.

21 For a more complete summary, see North, 93–95.

22 David, Paul, “Clio and the Economics of QWERTY,” American Economic Review 75 (May 1985).

23 Arthur, W. Brian, “Self-Reinforcing Mechanisms in Economics,” in Anderson, Philip W., Arrow, Kenneth J., and Pines, David, eds., The Economy as an Evolving Complex System (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1988); Arthur, W. Brian, “Competing Technologies, Increasing Returns, and Lock-In by Historical Events,” Economic Journal 99 (March 1989).

24 Jackson, Kenneth T., Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), esp. chap. 11; Danielson, Michael N., The Politics Exclusion (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976).

25 Pierson, Paul, “‘Policy Feedbacks’ and Political Change: Contrasting Reagan and Thatcher's Pension-Reform Initiatives,” Studies in American Political Development 6 (Fall 1992).

26 Interestingly, within political science the idea of “lock-ins” (though focusing on institutions rather than policies) has mainly been utilized in the field of international relations. See for example Keohane, Robert O., After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 100106. Another draws on Arthur Stinchcombe's analysis of sunk costs. See Stinchcombe, , Constructing Social Theories (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1968), 120–25.

27 Bachrach, Peter and Baratz, Morton, “Two Faces of Power,” American Political Science Review 56 (1962).

28 For a pathbreaking study of networks of social interdependence, see Schelling, Thomas C., Micromotives and Macrobehavior (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978). Another contribution of public policies to the development of these social networks is discussed in more detail in Hirsch, Fred, Social Limits to Growth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976); and Kahn, Alfred E., “The Tyranny of Small Decisions: Market Failures, Imperfections, and the Limits of Economics,” Kyklos 19 (1966).

29 For an introduction to the ways in which these kinds of arguments are reshaping institutional analysis, see March and Olsen (fn. 2); and Powell, Walter W. and DiMaggio, Paul J., eds., The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

30 Heclo, Hugh, Modern Social Politics in Britain and Sweden (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 305.

31 See, for example, Simon, Herbert A., Models of Man (New York: Wiley, 1957); Lindblom, Charles E., “The ‘Science’ of Muddling Through,” Public Administration Review 19 (Spring 1959); and March, James G., “Bounded Rationality, Ambiguity, and the Engineering of Choice,” Bell Journal of Economics 9 (Autumn 1978).

32 Heclo(fn. 30), 315.

33 Ibid., 315–16.

34 Lee, Bradford A., “The Miscarriage of Necessity and Invention: Proto-Keynesianism and Democratic States in the 1930s,” in Hall, 129–70.

35 Heclo(fn. 30), 317.

36 See also Ann Shola Orloff and Skocpol, Theda, “‘Why Not Equal Protection?’: Explaining the Politics of Public Social Spending in Britain, 1900–1911, and the United States, 1880s–1920,” American Sociological Review 49 (December 1984); and Orloff, Ann Shola, “The Political Origins of America's Belated Welfare State,” in Weir, Margaret, Orloff, Ann Shola, and Skocpol, Theda, eds, The Politics of Social Policy in the United States (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).

37 Heclo(fn. 30), 301, 308.

38 Peter A. Hall, “Policy Paradigms, Social Learning and the State: The Case of Economic Policy-Making in Britain,” Comparative Politics (forthcoming). See also idem, “Conclusion: The Politics of Keynesian Ideas,” in Hall, 361–91.

39 On Vietnam, see Fromkin, David and Chace, James, “What Are the Lessons of Vietnam?Foreign Affairs 63 (Spring 1985). Another the War on Poverty, consider the contrasting lessons drawn in Murray, Charles, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980 (NewYork: Basic Books, 1984); and Schwartz, John E., America's Hidden Success: A Reassessment of Public Policy from Kennedy to Reagan, rev. ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1987). Another am grateful to Peter Hall for suggesting these examples to me.

40 Aaron, Henry J., Politics and the Professors: The Great Society in Perspective (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1978).

41 Swidler, Ann, “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies,” American Sociological Review 51 (April 1986).

42 Jervis, Robert, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 143.

43 Amenta, Edwin, Clemens, Elisabeth S., Olsen, Jefren, Parikh, Sunita, and Skocpol, Theda, “The Political Origins of Unemployment Insurance in Five American States,” Studies in American Political Development 2 (1987).

44 This perhaps explains why students of foreign policy-making, which often features decision making by small groups or even single individuals, have had a particular interest in learning processes. See the literature reviewed in Khong, Yuen Foong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), chap. 1. Khong's work offers an ambitious and thoughtful attempt to address many of the objections to learning arguments.

45 On the importance of the scope of conflict, see Schattschneider, E. E., The Semisovereign People (New York: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston, 1960).

46 Kingdon makes this point in his careful study of the policy-making process. Kingdon, John, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (Boston: Little, Brown, 1984).

47 See Heclo's discussion of party and interest group influence (fn. 30), 293–301.

48 Kuklinski, James H., “Information and the Study of Politics,” in John Ferejohn and James H. Kuklinski, Information and Democratic Processes, 391.

49 On focusing events, see Kingdon (fn. 46), 99–105.

50 See, for example, Leonard, Herman B., Checks Unbalanced: The Quiet Side of Public Spending (New York: Basic Books, 1986), chap. 4.

51 Wilensky, Harold, The New Corporatism, Centralization, and the Welfare State (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1976). Another also Hibbs, Douglas A. Jr, and Madsen, Henrik Jess, “Public Reactions to the Growth of Taxation and Government Expenditure,” World Politics 33 (April 1981).

52 Kennedy, Paul, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Random House, 1987), 8081.

53 Weaver, R. Kent, “The Politics of Blame Avoidance,” Journal of Public Policy 6 (October-December 1986).

54 Arnold, Douglas, The Logic of Congressional Action (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

55 This is much more likely to be true in an institutional setting like that of the United States, where the location of accountability is often uncertain. See Pierson, Paul and Weaver, R. Kent, “Political Institutions and Loss Imposition: Pensions Policy in Britain, Canada and the United States,” in Weaver, R. Kent and Rockman, Burt, eds., Do Institutions Matter? Government Capabilities in the U.S. and Abroad (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1993).

56 Weaver, R. Kent, Automatic Government: The Politics of Indexation (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1988).

57 Arnold (fn. 54), 48n. For an interesting effort to explore this issue, see Stone, Deborah, “Causal Stories and the Formation of Policy Agendas,” Political Science Quarterly 104 (Summer 1989).

58 Skocpol, Theda, “Bringing the State Back In: Strategies and Analysis in Current Research,” in Evans, Reuschemeyer, and Skocpol (fn. 5), 17.

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.

60 Lowi, Theodore J., “American Business, Public Policy, Case Studies, and Political Theory,” World Politics 16 (July 1964); idem, “Four Systems of Policy, Politics, and Choice,” Public Administration Review 32 (July-August 1972); Wilson, James Q., Political Organizations (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 330–37; and idem, American Government, 4th ed. (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1989), 422–47, 590–604.

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).

62 Ferejohn and Kuklinski (fn. 48); Krehbiel, Keith, Information and Legislative Organization (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991); McCubbins, Mathew M. and Sullivan, Terry, eds., Congress: Structure and Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

63 For a summary of that challenge, see March and Olsen (fn. 2), chap. 1.

* For helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper I would like to thank Richard Valelly and the participants in the State and Capitalism and the American Political Development Seminars at Harvard University.


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