Social Policy

When most Americans hear the term "public policy" they probably think first about social policy--laws, programs and rules that address issues such as welfare, health care, crime, environmental problems, abortion, and education. Social policy debates tend to be complex and contentious because people often hold sharply contrasting views about the best course of action and because they perceive so much being at stake.

Generally speaking, social policy debates are waged at two levels--at the big-picture, philosophical level and at the practical, implementation level. Philosophically, people may differ in their support for government action or inaction, the emphasis they place on liberty or order, republicanism or democracy. These opposing views are often deeply held and have significant implications for the ways citizens and politicians approach policy problems.

These philosophical differences also manifest themselves at the practical level. Assuming a societal value can be agreed upon, what is the best policy or set of policies to foster that value? For example, while liberals and conservatives generally agree that abortions should be rare and that poverty should be eliminated, they disagree sharply about the way to achieve these outcomes. Today, there is broad support for "quality" education; but, liberals generally favor more federal governmental involvement while conservatives support local independence and control. Bridging these "practical" gaps is not easy because of the philosophical foundations from which they arise.

The General Welfare versus Individual Interests

By definition, social policies are aimed at promoting the good of society. The "good of society," however, is not easily agreed upon. Virtually every public policy is aimed at making particular individuals better-off. At the same time, other individuals might actually be made less well-off (at least in the short-term) by the policy. For example, if a billionaire is required to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes to support programs that provide food and shelter for the poor, the billionaire is financially worse off. Society, (including the billionaire) however, is arguably better off because of the broader societal benefits of these programs. Not everyone, though, agrees with this definition of societal good. Some people believe that the good of society is best promoted by giving individuals the tools (such as education and job training) to compete in a free market economy, not by redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor.

As the foregoing example illustrates, more often than not, differences in social policy debates often come down to different priorities in balancing liberty and order. People who emphasize liberty tend to believe that the government should play only a minimal role in the lives of the people, intervening only to protect their lives, liberty and property. In contrast, those who emphasize order are more willing to sacrifice some measure of individual liberty to allow the government to provide more order and equality in society. For example, a policy that provides all individuals with an "equality of start" (the same educational opportunities and the same chances to compete fairly in the marketplace) emphasizes individual liberty and freedom. Alternatively, a policy that provides "equality of finish," or roughly the same socioeconomic outcomes for all individuals, emphasizes order and equality.

In the United States, most social policies represent a carefully crafted balance between liberty and order. In many instances, dual policies address the same problem from both directions. For example, the economic well-being of individuals and families, is promoted by the provision of public education and financial assistance for college. It is also promoted through social welfare programs, such as food stamps, Medicaid and unemployment benefits. In the one case, individuals are given the tools to compete while in the other they are provided with a "safety net" when they don't fair well in the economic marketplace.

Welfare Reform

In 1995, the federal government dramatically shifted the balance between liberty and order in the delivery of welfare benefits to low-income individuals. Instead of guaranteeing welfare benefits to anyone who falls below a particular income level, the federal government now allows states to enact limits on the total number of years an individual can draw welfare benefits. The change in policy guarantees less order and stability and while emphasizing individual liberty and responsibility. After a few years under the new program, the results are generally positive but some observers worry that many people are not finding satisfactory employment to take care of themselves when their benefits run out.

Welfare policy debates in the United States will continue to be focussed on balancing liberty against order, equality against personal economic freedom. Significant problems loom large on the horizon--there are persistently high levels of individuals and families without health insurance and current projections suggest that the Social Security trust fund will not cover benefits for retirees beyond the middle of this century. These and other issues will require citizens and their elected representatives to address and readdress societal priorities and the ways they are pursued.

Regulating Individual Behavior

Other social policies that have little to do with the economic fortunes of individuals in society nonetheless have significant implications for the balance between individual liberty and order. Legal restrictions on individual behavior limit liberty in obvious ways. There are numerous examples of such limitations, almost all of which are defended on the basis of the societal order they promote.

Prohibitions against illegal drug use, prostitution and gambling are all examples of limits on individual behavior that, at least by some accounts, do not directly harm anyone other than those who are participating in the activity. In fact, many libertarians, the staunchest defenders of liberty over order in the American political system, argue that drugs, prostitution and gambling should be legal. Most people, however, believe that these behaviors have negative side effects that are bad for society, not just the individuals who engage in them. Some people even believe that one of society's responsibilities should be to protect individuals from their own bad choices.

Interestingly, conservatives and liberals do not consistently line up on the same side of the liberty-order dividing line. While liberals generally promote individual liberty by supporting free speech and freedom from government regulation or involvement when it comes to reproductive choices, they also tend to support limitations on individual liberty such as gun control and environmental regulations that restrict how individuals can use their property. Conservatives are similarly conflicted, supporting individual freedom and liberty in terms of educational choice and gun ownership while promoting order through strict laws against drug use and flag burning.

More on Social Policy


Terms and Concepts

equality of finish Equality of outcomes, generally measured in socioeconomic status. The "finish" in question generally refers to accomplishments after entering adulthood.

equality of start Equality of opportunity, generally measured in terms of equal access to quality education and training.

Think About It

Is there a greater emphasis on equality of start or finish in the United States? Do you think the emphasis should be shift in one direction or another?

Is there too much, not enough or just the right amount of emphasis on individual liberty in the United States?