The Limits of Policy Change

Incrementalism, Worldview, and the Rule of Law

Michael T. Hayes

"Hayes is at his analytical best. . . . His analysis both refines and challenges conventional thinking."
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Michael Hayes offers a vigorous defense of incrementalism: the theory that the policymaking process typically should involve bargaining, delay, compromise, and, therefore, incremental change. Incrementalism, he argues, is one result of a checks-and-balances system in which politicians may disagree over what we want to achieve as a nation or what policies would best achieve shared goals.

Many political scientists have called for reforms that would facilitate majority rule and more radical policy change by strengthening the presidency at the expense of Congress. But Hayes develops policy typologies and analyzes case studies to show that the policy process works best when it conforms to the tenets of incrementalism. He contends that because humans are fallible, politics should work through social processes to achieve limited ends and to ameliorate—rather than completely solve—social problems. Analyzing the evolution of air pollution policy, the failure of President Clinton’s health care reform in 1994, and the successful effort at welfare reform in 1995-96, Hayes calls for changes that would make incrementalism work better by encouraging a more balanced struggle among social interests and by requiring political outcomes to conform to the rule of law.

Written for students and specialists in politics, public policy, and public administration, The Limits of Policy Change examines in detail a central issue in democratic theory.

Table of Contents


1. Needed: A Realistic Theory of Policy Change

2. Incrementalism and Worldview: The Virtues of Systemic Rationality
The Two Worldviews
Worldviews and the Proper Role of Government
The Rationalist Attitude toward Power
The Anti-Rationalist Attitude toward Power
The Superiority of the Congressional Majority
The Virtues of Systemic Rationality

3. Incrementalism as Meliorative Liberalism
Meliorative Liberalism versus Classical Liberalism
A Typology of Worldviews
Karl Popper on Piecemeal Social Change
The Meliorative Liberalism of Charles Lindblom
The Virtues of Incrementalism
Making Incrementalism Work Better

4. The Unequal Group Struggle
Three Biases to the Group Universe
Unequal Resources and the Balance of Forces
Corporations as a Special Case: The Market as Prison
Sources of Business Power
Effective Influence
A Typology of Policy Processes
Inequality and Incrementalism

5. Dramaturgical Incrementalism
Majority-Building Incrementalism
Air Pollution Policy Prior to 1970
The Public-Satisfying Model
The Nuclear Freeze as a Test Case of Jones's Model
The Nuclear Freeze as Dramaturgical Incrementalism
The Clean Air Case as Dramaturgical Incrementalism
Public Arousal and Policy Change

6. Health Care Reform Fails in 1993-94: A Barrier II Nondecision
Presidential Leadership and the Need for Majority Building
Issue Area Characteristics: An Anxious Public
Issue Area Characteristics: Multidimensional Complexity
Institutions: Policy Communities and Policy Development
Decision Making: The Necessity for Majority Building
Final Outcome as a Barrier II Nondecision Anatomy of a Nondecision

7. Welfare Reform, 1995-96: Self-Regulation as Calculated Risk
The Life Cycle of Issues
Rationality within the Policy Community
Welfare Reform as Calculated Risk
Conflictual Expectations and Welfare Policy
Who Bears the Risk?

8. Political Conflict and Policy Change
The Case for Incrementalism
The Limited Vision of Meliorative Liberalism
Systemic Rationality and the Interplay of Worldviews
Improving Incrementalism: Adaptive Conservative Reforms

9. Incrementalism under the Rule of Law
Incrementalism and Institutional Sclerosis
The Rule of Law Defined
The Rule of Law and the Powerless
Restoring the Rule of Law



"Hayes is at his analytical best. . . . His analysis both refines and challenges conventional thinking."—American Political Science Review

"[This book] will prove to be an important contribution to both policy analysis and democratic theory. . . . [Michael Hayes'] case for incrementalism coupled to the rule of law is a powerful alternative to the politics that all too often dominates contemporary policy debates."—Edward J. Harpham, University of Texas at Dallas


Supplemental Materials


About the Author

Michael T. Hayes is professor and chair of the department of political science at Colgate University. He is the author of Incrementalism and Public Policy.

216 pp., 6 x 9

Jan 2001

216 pp., 6 x 9

ISBN: 978-0-87840-835-1
Jan 2001

216 pp.

ISBN: 978-1-58901-449-7
Jan 2001

Essential Texts in American Government series

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