Discussion on policy typologies

Policy Typologies

Since political scientists seek to explain in as parsimonious a manner as possible, the conclusion that all policy areas are unique and therefore unable to be explained as a whole is a difficult pill to swallow. What’s the middle ground between one general theory that doesn’t explain individual policy shifts and no theory and only individual policy explanations? One middle-of-the-road approach to this is to look at different categories or types of policies. Policy typologies go beyond individual policy areas like homeland security, education, or agriculture; they are categories underneath which multiple, but similar, policy areas might fall.

The benefit of breaking policies up by subject type is that the same political factors might be involved in similar types of policy. For example, partisan differences could help explain changes in multiple social policies, including Social Security and welfare. If Democrats are in charge of the government, we might expect to see actions to strengthen those types of policies. Republicans, on the other hand, might seek to change and modify military policy when they are in charge. All economic policies might be intimately affected by global economic conditions, or sharp upturns or downswings in the stock market. In this way, we can explain changes across more policy areas leading to more parsimonious theories. Smith sums up this argument, saying, “Typologies draw their theoretical strength from the idea that public policies can be systematically classified and that associated with each policy category are distinct and predictable patterns of political behavior.”21

Another way of thinking about different types of policy is by those that are frequently on the political agenda and those that are not. Handberg presents a type of fluctuating policy typology based upon what issues presidents perceive as important to the success of their administration.22 In this view, primary issue items, such as the economy and international relations, receive increased attention compared to secondary or tertiary items. This suggests that policy change or the type of policy change may be different in policy areas that are considered frequently or on top of the president’s agenda. If the president pays little attention to an agenda item lower on the scale, the type of change may be inherently different.

One of the most influential policy typologies in political science was put forward by Lowi in 1972.23 He bases this categorization on the premise that government carries out policy through coercion—through making people or systems behave in a particular way for fear of the consequences if they do not. Therefore, on one axis is the likelihood of coercion (remote or likely), and on the other is the method through which coercion is exercised (through individual behavior or through the environment). The resulting four types of policy are shown in Table 11.1.

Table 11.1 Lowi’s Policy Typology

Table 11.1 Lowi’s Policy Typology
    Applicability of Coercion
    Individual Environment
Likelihood of Coercion Low Distributive policy Constituent policy
  High Regulatory policy Redistributive policy

What do these four policy areas consist of? Distributive policies are characterized by low levels of conflict where many different people can benefit from projects. Lowi’s examples include tariffs and subsidies along with land use policies. Regulatory policies consist of policies aimed at eliminating things like unfair competition or fraudulent advertising; these are policies that protect individual citizens. Lowi includes policies like reapportioning or creating new bureaucracies as examples of constituent policy while redistributive policy includes things that redistribute benefits, Social Security, taxes, welfare, etc.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the various typologies policy analysts have proposed, some political scientists are critical of their usefulness. Smith summarizes several of these critiques, including the fact that some policies do not fit neatly into whatever typology is being used, some policies overlap several categories, and some policies may even shift categories over time.24 Smith writes that “the key obstacle in addressing this issue was identified as the ambiguity of policy as a concept, that its status as a particular type was a mental construct and not an observable and measurable empirical quality.”25 In other words, different policy scholars may categorize and classify policy areas differently depending on subjective criteria that can change from person to person. In some ways, this critique is reminiscent of the larger debate within political science between qualitative and quantitative scholars. Those who prefer quantitative methods would be skeptical of such classification schemes precisely because there is no objective empirical standard that causes one policy area to fall into one category or another. On the other hand, qualitative scholars might argue that not everything can be quantified, and this debate is representative of that. Despite these drawbacks, policy typologies continue to be used and are still useful in order to “understand variation across issue areas in the venues where policymaking takes place and the factors responsible for policy change.”26

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