Public Policy Origins Research Paper

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1. Introduction

Public policy is as old as the history of human governance. All rulers, irrespective of the form of public rule, have sought to shape and manage the substantive order governed under their authority. Modern public policy composes a narrower domain. Co-extensive with the complex, and continuing, process of state formation (and de-formation) begun in late medieval and early modern Europe (Tilly 1975), public policy has come to refer more specifically both to what governments do as they transact with civil society, the economy, and states within a global state system and to the creation and deployment of knowledge about these sites of authoritative transactions. The semi-independent origins of policy knowledge and policy activity constitute my subject. I focus primarily on two formative moments in the West: (a) the early modern period marked by the growing concentration of state sovereignty over territory and people, and (b) the midnineteenth through to the early twentieth century when the ‘social question’ and unaccustomed levels and forms of international violence pressed to the fore. ‘Origins’ itself a word with a composite meaning. It refers both to the beginnings of a process and to the constituent elements of what comes next. The results of decisions taken at the critical junctures I discuss, set in motion developmental pathways that further defined the contours of modern public policy.

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2. Early Modern Europe

The very existence of public policy in the modern sense can be traced to sixteenth and seventeenth century postfeudal Europe, a period marked by the accumulation and concentration of sovereignty into national territorial states ( Watkins 1934). These units claimed unique authority within their borders and recognized boundaries demarcating states from each other (in this way, international relations became distinguishable from domestic politics). Each State possessed sovereignty based on law, and with it legitimate force within a distinctive territory, an ensemble of institutions, and a vision and articulation of the common good. With these attributes, the State emerged as a calculating actor vis a vis other States, the newly separated economic sphere, and a newly distinguishable civil society (Skinner 1989).

This consolidation of sovereignty into increasingly centralized units produced the standardization of laws, coinage, taxation, language, and responsibility for security, all of which were requisites for systematic public policy. A corollary process was that of a growing set of structural separations within national boundaries distinguishing the realms of sovereignty, property, and civil society. Now, states could not simply impose their will despotically. They had to create and deploy policies to transact and coordinate with other powerholders. State–society relations now became reciprocal as policy came to be synonymous with the outputs of governments seeking to regulate an increasingly challenging environment (Mann 1988; Tilly 1990; Spruyt 1994).

The modern economy likewise was the product of this postfeudal differentiation of spheres. The key point in the development of capitalism as the dominant framework for economic development came only with the concentration of sovereignty and the establishment of an authoritative framework for property rights and economic transactions on a large scale. Capitalism prospered and urbanization (as well as rural protoindustrialization) accelerated once states emerged that were not merely extortionist but shared an interest in creating the conditions required to organize independent market transactions. Whereas early medieval face-to-face exchanges had taken place in towns whose existence depended on grants of autonomy from local lords, thus creating insecurities outside this tight embrace, by the sixteenth century, kings, in exchange for revenue, protected towns and traveling merchants on a much larger scale. With states providing a framework for capitalist development and not acting merely as rent-seekers, the linkage between the economy and the polity was utterly transformed into a new kind of strategic game. States did not ensure just any property rights, but only those consistent with state interests; capital did not give obeisance to any state, but only to those that secured its economic activities. The terms of this relationship thus became the first of two fundamental pivots of modern domestic politics in the West (North 1985).

The second was the hinge between the State and civil society. Separated from property, and concentrated in authority, the States of postfeudal Europe had to forge new, and uncertain, ties to civil society. These exchanges were marked by contestable questions about the range of activities over which the State would have authority—that is, the extent of its hubris in penetrating and regulating civil society—and about the ways in which members of civil society could affect the activities of the State. With the breakup of the tightly knit juridical, economic, and social units characteristic of feudalism, states could not simply compel by imposition. Instead, it was a condition of their effectiveness that they transact with society and coordinate aims with ‘private’ power holders.

State–society relations thus became more reciprocal and less arbitrary; over time, the very ability of the State to utilize its authority to intervene in society produced commitments that subsequently bound the State. (Pitkin 1969; Downing 1992; Ertman 1997) The terms of these exchanges became the objects of political struggle and the subjects of expert consideration by political theorists and by political economists. Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Millar, Steuart, the Physiocrats, and Smith, amongst a cast of many, mostly lesser, others, theorized these relationships and sought to find rules of interested engagement between the relevant parties. (Hirschman 1977) At stake was both the scope of responsibility of states for economic and moral situations and the ways in which the actions of states could be shaped by people, interests, and values outside the State itself.

The last key zone of transaction was international. Based on sovereignty understood as exclusive control over a particular territory and its people, a new international system came into being that substituted modern states with claims to unique control for formerly more fluid and overlapping jurisdictions. This change did not occur all at once, and its dimensions and decisiveness were masked for quite some time by the existence of dynastic empires, but the new global order of sovereign actors transformed the meaning of international policy about war and peace. Now, offense was geared to the extension of exclusive geographical sovereignty; defense to its protection. Contests over borders were settled by force or by diplomacy, both of which required new kinds of social knowledge (Doyle 1997).

These three sets of transaction were arrayed in a hierarchy, with the international dimension of war and peace designed to secure or extend sovereignty first amongst them because the existence and protection of such exclusive claims was the premise of the very existence of domestic policy. International policy also defined ambitions for overseas empires and for the guardianship of commerce in the globe’s new Europe-centered market system (Zolberg 1981). As conflict between and amongst states now took on a global cast, so, too, did specialized policy knowledge about subjects as wide-ranging as military organization and the human qualities of ‘primitive’ subject populations.

Producers of modern policy knowledge were those intellectuals who came to understand and manage these new sets of transaction (Bauman 1992). Such policy intellectuals, after Machiavelli, created a modern science of government with two main ends: to point rulers towards more effective transactions among the State, economy, and civil society, and to police, educate, and civilize the population in order to improve its character and render it more rational and governable. They counseled how to expand the policy role of governments to address the security and portability of property under broadly mercantile economic arrangements and doctrines and how to govern populations subject to the authority of the State. Guided by such policy knowledge, as the territorial scope of states either expanded or became more secure, as the infrastructural capacities of governmental bureaucracies grew (including their abilities to gather and deploy statistical and other forms of information), and as a communications revolution in print and in advances to transportation took hold, governments took on increasing responsibilities for the solution of collective problems. These included new roles for both local and national authorities in such areas as poor relief, sanitation, and schooling (de Swaan 1988). Each time a new zone of policy activity was established under public aegis, either complementing or supplanting the responsibilities of private religious or secular responsibility, new specialist managers and intellectuals fashioned distinctive sets of policy ideas to organize these State-based activities. This extension of responsibility transcended even such fundamental divides as the ancien regime and post-Revolutionary France ( Woloch 1994).

In the long epoch from early modern Europe to the nineteenth century, mercantile thought produced a powerful and dominant recipe for state-building and for rules to govern international economic transactions, to shape those joining the State to the domestic economy and civil society. Its main aspects included ‘regulation of the economically strong, support and direction for the economically weak, and the State’s own enterprise where private initiative is wanting’ (Krieger 1963, p. 557; Anderson 1974). At its early moments mercantilism was put to use for conservative purposes to buttress a social order in crisis; later, under the initiatives of Colbert, mercantilism went hand in hand with the protection of property rights and the reduction of transaction costs to provide a dynamic basis for capitalist economic development. Both facets were integral to the process of State-building in which:

regional rulers utilized provisions for welfare as well as force to extend their control over all the inhabitants of their realms. Indeed, it was precisely the need for such a politics of welfare over a larger area when the old local welfare arrangements were being broken down that went far to establish the ruler as the head of the State. (Krieger 1963, p. 557)

3. The Late Nineteenth And Early Twentieth Centuries

During the first half of the nineteenth century, these formulas were pressured by the emergence of independent labor markets of more than local and regional scope (Polanyi 1944; Agnew 1986). With the introduction of such mechanisms to allocate people to jobs and set wage levels, capitalism entered a new phase. Concurrent with the development of labor markets (as well as autonomous housing markets) that helped generate new working class identities, dispositions, and patterns of collective action (Katznelson and Zolberg 1986), the period was marked by the development of compelling conceptions of popular representation and citizenship defined by the American and French Revolutions. All members of civil society now became actual or potential citizens. No longer could citizenship be restricted to those who, by holding property, demonstrated a stake in the existing commonwealth. Instead, the possibility of political (and military) participation was universalized, in the expectation that in a community of citizens people would act rationally in pursuit of individual, group, and common interests. Perhaps more so at this time than at any moment since, citizenship now possessed a radical, emancipatory edge (van Gunsteren 1985).

Within this field of tension, public policy was transformed radically in range and content. In this novel circumstance the ‘social problem’ emerged as a key category of public policy. This emblematic term condensed the new tensions of markets and citizenship. It put at the core of public life the question of whether, and to what extent, the political relations of citizens might modify the operation of markets, as well as the extent to which the rationale of the marketplace would dictate limits to citizenship. Prerevolutionary approaches to citizenship (whether Roman, medieval, or Enlightenment) had not ignored the connection between citizenship and minimum levels of security, but they had dealt with it by excluding those without economic means from the community of citizens. No longer was this solution possible. As citizenship became more inclusive, states extended the scope of their policies aimed at organizing markets and mitigating their distributional inequities. Further, a modernist policy intelligentsia, nourished by Enlightenment conceptions of reason, considered citizenship, markets, and their intertwining with the confidence that they could find scientific solutions to ethical problems. Their methods became more specialized, and the professionals overtook the amateurs.

In situations characterized by the crystallization of the new institutions of markets and citizenship, practitioners of social knowledge perforce could accept or repudiate these foundations of policy. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, deep reactionary currents of refusal and restoration, radical renunciations of the new moral economy (Hirschman 1991), and forward-looking blueprints, the most important of which was a powerful Marxist critique and teleology, assertively rejected the new institutional and normative framework of liberalism. By contrast, the great majority of social analysts accommodated with varying degrees of enthusiasm to the new order and to its immanent power relations, and they sought to solve problems within the liberal doctrinal and institutional premises.

Even within this framework, there existed a wide array of alternative conceptualizations, ways of organizing knowledge, and contestations about policies, from right to left (at both poles straddling the liberal/non-liberal divide); but these debates, no matter how hotly contested, came to be circumscribed within a distinctive family of possibilities and they focused on a shared subject matter: the field of tension created by the simultaneous development of transactions between states and markets, especially as they concerned labor, and between states and actual or prospective citizens within civil society. The harsh realities of unequal and exploitative relations between economic actors helped create contentious class representations that intersected the radical impetus of citizenship to produce incendiary political possibilities, making both the modern State and modern capitalism precarious.

In these circumstances, producers of social knowledge—as individual scholars and theorists, and in organized settings such as universities, learned societies, political parties, organizations devoted to policy goals, and governmental bureaucracies—struggled with how to interpret and manage the new transactions linking State and market and State and citizen with very mixed and often confused motives: to preserve the social order and to reform it, and frequently both. Sometimes cast in a language of socialist transformation, sometimes in a conservative discourse, and sometimes in a vocabulary of individual rights, the center of gravity of the new social knowledge in the West was located in various attempts to find reference points and tools of administration for a form of social policy which could integrate conceptions of individual and collective goods. The policy intellectuals who undertook this quest were not utopians. Most saw no way to go back to a moment before citizenship and (labor) markets (indeed, in Britain, neither progressives nor conservatives in the late nineteenth century sought to return to the pre-1834 epoch, when social policy and economics were treated autonomously), and no way forward to a postliberal era within the ambit of normal politics (Harris 1990; Mandler 1987).

The features of policy and knowledge tended to be nationally-specific. In France, an optimistic anticlerical and republican program of the pupils of Comte and then of Durkheim articulated with the Third Republic. In Britain, New Liberalism conquered the field, displacing and reshaping virtually all its competitors; as it did in the United States, within the framework of Progressivism. In Germany, like so much else, social science and policy studies suffered the fate of the country’s precarious liberalism, developing especially skittish qualities (Lepines 1988; Ringer 1969).

4. Modern Policy Knowledge And Practice

The place of pride in social analysis in the ancien regime had belonged to the moral sciences. Classical political economy had been elaborated within its embrace. In Britain, figures as diverse as Stewart, Malthus, Ricardo, the Philosophic Whigs, John Stuart Mill, and Bagehot, sought to maintain holistic portrayals of modern society while treating the specificity of the new transactions between its distinctive domains, and to do so by making the role of the State, in form and in policy, the centerpiece of their analyses. These pivotal thinkers were neither traditional political philosophers who deduced the character of the good society from first principles or moral ends, nor were they empirical social scientists who sought to comprehend the regularities governing the new transactions.

Over the course of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, this kind of relatively integrated social knowledge was replaced by professionalized, discipline-based attempts to grapple with the specific tensions inherent in the elaboration of markets and citizenship in liberal societies. At stake was the character of the extended responsibilities and jurisdiction of the State with respect both to markets and citizens. From the vantage point of the transactions between the states and markets, the central issue was how to shape the State’s interventions to make markets function effectively and to make their distributional effects tolerable. From the perspective of transactions between states and citizens, at issue was the balance between freedom and domination. From the standpoint of international relations, the key issue was how to regulate the quest for power and plenty in a manner that enhanced the prospects of peace and prosperity. Together, these questions elaborated the themes of moral philosophy under radically revised conditions (Thomas and Meyer 1984).

These were the concerns of a new genre of policy institution, the first example of which is Britain’s Social Science Association founded in 1857. Created to consider the problems of social economics and to promote legislative reforms in the House of Commons with regard to education, law, penal policy, public health, and the regulation of markets, the Association self-consciously viewed itself as a conduit between politicians and an expanding citizenry with political rights, and it came to play an important interstitial role in the Victorian State by proposing ways to manage the ‘social problem’ attendant upon the simultaneous existence of labor markets and an expanded citizenry. Like Germany’s Verein fur Sozialpolitik, the Association fused reform and social science in its attempt to provide expert knowledge on behalf of a project its members conceived of as an endeavor of social integration. Working before the development of separate social science disciplines and before the creation of an autonomous and politically ambitious labor movement, the Association succeeded in joining under liberal auspices a wide array of intellectuals as well as Liberal MPs, trade union and cooperative movement leaders, and other reformers in a quest to bring expertise to bear on the project of creating a new liberalism capable of surmounting the now manifest inadequacies of traditional political economy (Goldman 1986).

This subsequent transformation in subject matter, style of work, and institutional organization was no simple linear development. There were two overlapping moments, each characterized by an important partition. In the first, spanning the 1860s through the 1910s, the knowledge community divided into specialists concerned with one or the other transactions of State, economy, and citizenship. Integrated knowledge separated into distinctive zones for the study of economics, politics, and society, ultimately devolving into wholly separate professional disciplines, each with distinctive intellectual tendencies (Oleson and Voss 1979). The second moment, from the 1890s through the 1920s, was characterized by a trend complementary to these new disciplinary divisions: a split between academic practitioners of the social sciences, located mainly in burgeoning institutions of higher education, whose policy concerns and impact were indirect, and scholars who emphasis was placed far more directly on policy matters and public influence.

As late as 1870, political science was hardly distinguishable from political economy and history. In the next 50 years, political science secured a disciplinary status divorced in large measure from both. It came to focus in a specialized way on constitutionalism, law, political parties, interest groups, voting and other mechanisms of representation; that is, on the rules of State–citizen transactions. During the same period, political economics shed its adjective and its claim to be an aspect, in its science, of moral philosophy. Recast as a scholarly craft in the mathematical language of post Jevons marginalism, it was not so much that economics no longer wished to concern itself with larger questions of human nature and social organization. Rather, the economists of the period sought to elaborate a science of markets on the basis of an elegant simplification about just these issues, but not for the sake of science alone. This new economics, for whom the key figure certainly was Alfred Marshall, was created in the service of the ethical goals of the period’s New Liberalism. Under his remarkable influence, deductive work within economics replaced historical scholarship. This narrowing of focus was accompanied by a widening of theoretical ambition to create an economics as a timeless and institutionless body of knowledge (Soffer 1978).

Indeed, Marshall was an exceptionally important figure at two junction points: between classical political economy and disciplinary social science; and between the latter and the world of public policy. His Principles of Economics, published in 1890, explicitly sought to place pioneering analytical techniques at the service of human improvement. While Marshall’s economics was neoclassical in the sense that all its aspects concerned the fluctuating equilibrium of supply and demand, this equilibrium depended for him on the subjective decisions of producers and consumers in pursuit of qualitative time-bound goals in pursuit of a better life. Once his new mathematical tools became central to economics, the discipline developed in ways that elaborated technique at the expense of his own value-laden preferences. The new Marshallian economics deepened its scientific capacities at the expense of its practical effects on policy issues of the day and on its ability to analyze, or even take an interest in, the rules of transaction governing the relations of State and market in particular historical settings. Just at the moment when, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the social tensions of markets and citizenship intensified under the impact of economic depressions, the radical transformations in industrial size and class structure entailed in the second industrial revolution, international rivalries for markets, a new geopolitics characterized by imperial ventures, and, ultimately, by total war, the academic discipline of economics lost a good deal of its capacity to function as a practical policy science. In part this was a matter of a distancing from practical affairs, in part a flight to abstraction, in part a deliberate decision in favor of the ambitions of science at the expense of the ambitions of moral discourse (Church 1974; Nelson 1987).

By the end of the nineteenth century, classical political economy virtually had disappeared, as had the gentlemen generalist historians and lawyers who had become archaic figures. These ‘all-rounders’ were steadily replaced by academic scholars in specialized social sciences and by a growing body of policy specialists who claimed knowledge that both drew upon and crossed over the boundaries that divided the social sciences. Labor experts, social workers, organizers of social surveys, public administration specialists, reformers concerned with social policy, and intellectuals within social movements and political parties—both inside and outside the administrative apparatuses of states—tried to come to grips with the intensification of the problems inherent in interactions between States, citizens, and markets. These policy intellectuals were a novel and distinctive breed. Their main orientation was not to the social science disciplines as such; nor were they amateur seekers after a science of legislation in the manner of their mid-nineteenth century predecessors.

In spite of its abstraction and distancing from practical affairs economics, and economists, were not left without influence. On the contrary, the new scientific economics achieved something of an encompassing contextual role with regard to the development in this epoch of a new kind of policy-relevant social knowledge that coexisted with, and drew upon, university-based social science disciplines. Economics set limits to common sense, by putting on a ‘scientific’ basis the assumption that market outcomes are likely to be the most optimal, at least in the sense of the most efficient. But if economics emerged secure in this role, policy analysis (unlike the policy studies of today grounded primarily in microeconomics) principally adopted the language of public administration and social engineering. This language, nestled within the assumptions of Marshallian economics, facilitated a self-image for policy intellectuals much like that of the earlier liberals of the Social Science Association which stressed the role of social knowledge in helping to transcend class conflict within a framework that accepted, at least implicitly, the divisions between State, economy, and civil society. The central concern of these policy intellectuals was how to build a State capable of dealing with the challenges of increasingly assertive working classes both as economic actors and as poorly integrated citizens. The focus of these efforts pivoted on what came, only later in the 1940s, to be called the Welfare State, to encompass the cluster of policies and institutions concerned both with the mitigation of market distributions and with the substantive content of citizenship. To one side of this new policy knowledge lay the preliberal conservatism of a Bismarck who had sought to make workers a new estate subservient to and dependent on the State; to the other, lay the strong socialist assertion that only the transcendence of markets and the integration of the domains of State, market, and citizen could resolve the contradictions of modern capitalist societies. The new liberal social knowledge decisively rejected these alternatives. Public policy today in the West is encompassed within these boundaries.

5. Origins As Consequences: A Post World War II And Post Cold War Postscript

Totalitarianism aside, what is striking is just how encompassing this orientation to public policy proved to be, and how dominant the policies promoted by practitioners of liberal social knowledge had, by the end of World War II, become broadly based on the model established under conditions of extreme economic and geopolitical duress by the American New Deal (Ruggie 1982). With Fascism defeated and Communism the new enemy, this expanded liberalism faced no serious competition in the normal politics of the western democracies. This is not to say that consensus replaced conflict; rather, conflicts about the contours of domestic issues took the form of debates about this or that essentially social liberal alternative, even in situations where some of the most important contestants for power presented more radical alternatives for the long haul. From quite far left to quite far right, political competitors accommodated to liberal principles and institutions. Political contests became no less vigorous, but certainly less fundamental: not capitalism versus socialism or democracy versus totalitarianism (though this antinomy defined the discourse of competition between the Soviet and American blocs), but a politics about rules of transaction between spheres within capitalism and democracy. Coherent repertoires of positions about these questions pivoting on the degree to which the State should be assertive in organizing markets and in utilizing social policy for distributional goals and on how institutions of political participation and the representation of interests should be organized distinguished ‘left’ from ‘right’ formulas about State– market and State–citizen transactions. Each position was given voice by its own identifiable policy intellectuals, but together they constituted a single, inherently liberal, knowledge community.

The benefits secured for liberal societies by the robust development of social knowledge by this kind of policy intelligentsia ought not to be gainsaid, especially in light of this century’s cruel alternatives. But we should also be aware that by conceptualizing their problems at the level of economic and political market exchanges, most policy intellectuals have left unexamined a host of issues about class and State, inequality and power. By working at the level of transactions between states and markets and states and citizens and by separating these from specialized inquiry by students of international relations, they tacitly have pushed the macrostructures of capitalism and states into the background of their work. In so doing, they have underscored the great normative achievements of liberalism, but also became accomplices in the silences deep-seated in the liberal project.


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