Ideas That Dominate Public Policy

Prior to 1900 the doctrine of laissez faire prevailed in America. Laissez faire is the philosophy that government should refrain from interfering in the economy. Beyond maintaining law and order, neither Washington nor the state capitals had any business telling manufacturers and merchants how to conduct their affairs. A company could protect its goods by locking employees in their workplace; it could maximize profits by hiring women and children for pennies a day in 12-hour shifts including Saturdays; it could hold down costs by skimping on health and safety equipment and facilities.

Acceptance of laissez faire dominated the early industrial revolution. According to its tenets, the marketplace, along with people's self-interest and charitable spirits, would promote the general welfare. Government rules and regulations were unnecessary and unwanted.

Industrialization, however, brought with it severe economic dislocations and untold human miseries. By the turn of the century, citizens of all social ranks began to reconsider government's proper role in society. Perhaps, they reasoned, laissez faire worked in a preindustrial era when families were more self-sufficient; when small shops, not massive assembly lines, produced most of the nation's goods, when colossal corporations and trusts did not monopolize transportation and trade, and when life seemed less dehumanized, bureaucratized, and harsh. But in an age of large-scale industry, laissez faire was becoming as outmoded as the horse and buggy.

The fire at the Triangle Waist Company and countless other tragedies like it thus ushered in a new set of ideas about political responsibility. Look at your classroom or dormitory. Even if they are old and rickety, chances are they contain metal, unlocked fire doors, clearly marked exits, fire extinguishers, smoke detectors, sprinklers, fire walls, and a host of other safety features mandated by state, local, and national regulations. Such precautions are so commonplace that everyone takes them for granted. But they did not get there by happenstance. They are the culmination of a major transformation in attitudes and expectations about government's legitimate functions.

Obviously ideas about government's responsibilities have changed drastically in the past 100 years. These days hardly anyone expects public officials to sit idly by while depressions, bank failures, inflation, epidemics, natural disasters, and other catastrophes befall citizens. On the contrary, most of us have come to demand more from political institutions.

Today, then, a different attitude toward government reigns. In order to understand the political system, and especially to know who does and does not have influence in it, one has to examine this philosophy. For a nation's political creed largely determines the shape, scope, and level of its government's activities, and in this sense ideas are an important form of power. They do as much damage as bombs and as much good as penicillin; they can compel behavior as effectively as a police officer; they determine the content of public policy as decisively as lawmakers; and they can squelch change or incite revolution. A nation's morality and political ideals create its policy agenda, legitimize its social and economic institutions, define standards of justice, and, of most significance, determine who governs and how they rule.

These statements are particularly true in free and open societies like ours, where authorities seldom rely on brute force to get their way. The skillful use of language and symbols works just as well. In America, as anywhere else, some individuals and groups benefit more than others from the way the prevailing political philosophy distributes authority.

This dominating, some might say opressive, public philosophy is called General Welfare Liberalism Go to Reserve Room
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