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.