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Historical Perspective

The Evolution of Public Policy


Public policy can change the future of almost anything, even great wars. The participation of the United States in World War I and World War II reflected a dramatic shift in U.S. public policy, showing an expansion of U.S. policy influence. The evolution of public policy is marked by expansion of the power of the people as well as government.

Throughout history public policy leaders have contributed to the approaches now seen in modern government. History takes place every day. People with a master of public administration and policy develop the skills and experience necessary for the analysis and administration of local and world-changing policies.

The History of Public Policy
There are many major historic public policy documents that helped shape the modern approach to how policy is created. The Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution, among several, show how the world changed toward modern ideals.

  • Magna Carta: Today, the Magna Carta stands as one of the most prominent and longstanding pieces of public policy in history. Proposed by England’s King John I and signed in 1215 CE, the Magna Carta first introduced the idea that there should be checks on government power. The primary target for Magna Carta was the king himself, promoting the idea that he could no longer claim to be above the law. The Magna Carta is now more than 800 years old.
  • U.S. Constitutional Ideals: 550 years later, the U.S. Constitution codified this principle for an enlightened age and a new land. America was founded on the assumption that people deserved to participate in the creation of laws that influence public policy and their rights. This was a new form of government, which used the balanced creation of laws instead of aristocratic power to dictate policy. This representational form of government allowed the people to elect the public policy leaders who would define policies.
  • Modern Approach: At present, the most fundamental distinction between modern American public policy and its ancient predecessors may be the expansion of bureaucracy. The U.S. president still has veto power over legislation, but the creation of policy is a far more negotiated institution than it was in centuries past. At its simplest, the American modern approach includes the public discussion of how policies will be carried out, debates over accessibility, and existing policy revisions.

Public Policy Leaders Throughout U.S. History
U.S. public policy of the 20th Century was marked primarily by expansion of government, bureaucracy, and services to the public. These leaders stood at the forefront of significant policy change.

  • Woodrow Wilson: During World War I president Woodrow Wilson acted as a bellwether for this extensive change in American public policy. The U.S. State Department notes that, prior to Wilson, Americans maintained a largely separatist approach to the politics of Western Europe. Wilson brought America and Western Europe together as allies and he was instrumental in creating the League of Nations, the first international policy organization designed to mediate international disputes.
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Becoming president a few years after the start of the Great Depression, Roosevelt inherited a country in severe economic trouble. Some regions had unemployment as high as 50 percent. Roosevelt significantly expanded the economic reach of the government with his “New Deal.” To mention just a couple of achievements, the New Deal provided financial protection for banks and created work opportunities for the millions unemployed during the Great Depression.
  • Earl Butz: The secretary of agriculture under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Butz was famous for his policies that ended many farm subsidies and the control of food supply in the U.S. For decades, farmers had received subsidies to leave parts of their land fallow to keep supply down and prices high. His policies stopped these subsidies and encouraged farmers to use all of their land for growing, which dramatically decreased the price of corn. This is an example of an effort on a smaller scale. Earl Butz’ push to end subsides has had a long-lasting impact. It is still debated whether that legacy is good or bad.

Modern Public Policy in Action
Today’s public policy follows in the 20th Century path of increasing involvement in foreign affairs, as well as the expansion of domestic programs. The country relies heavily on advocacy and discussion from appointed members of the president’s cabinet, as well as Congress, to determine the fate of proposed or existing economic, domestic, and foreign policies.

  • Economic Policy example: The federal minimum wage demonstrated the policy intervention of the federal government in business. The minimum wage began to ensure that employees in the U.S. received wages that allowed them to survive. At present, the federal government has not increased the minimum wage since 2009. Currently, advocates for and against raising the minimum wage debate the merits of forcing businesses to pay their employees higher wages.
  • Domestic Policy example: At times, public policy is so challenged that the U.S. Supreme Court must dictate the survival of the policy. That was the case with the Affordable Care Act signed into law in 2010. The Department of Health and Human Services notes that the Affordable Care Act created significant protections for consumers and small business owners so that they could better afford health insurance. At the same time, the act’s policies also restricted the rights of states or private insurance companies to dictate certain requirements or limitations of health insurance offered in their areas.
  • Foreign Policy example:
    Access to nuclear weapons in the volatile Middle East is a regular source of foreign policy initiatives worldwide. In recent years, several world powers have worried about Iran’s intent to make nuclear weapons. This fear led to the creation of the Joint Plan of Action and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, policies designed to ensure that Iran does not have the ability to make nuclear weapons.

Centuries ago, public policy was a rule of law handed down by monarchs and aristocrats. Through years of discussion, debate and even war, the evolution toward a negotiated approach to public policy has become apparent.

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