World Politics

Review Articles

When Effect Becomes Cause: Policy Feedback and Political Change

Paul Piersona1*

a1 Harvard University

Gøsta Esping-Andersen. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990, 248 pp.

Peter Hall, ed. The Political Power of Economic Ideas: Keynesianism across Countries. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989, 406 pp.

Douglass C. North. Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, 152 pp.

Theda Skocpol. Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992, 714 pp.


As governmental activity has expanded, scholars have been increasingly inclined to suggest that the structure of public policies has an important influence on patterns of political change. Yet research on policy feedback is mostly anecdotal, and there has so far been little attempt to develop more general hypotheses about the conditions under which policies produce politics. Drawing on recent research, this article suggests that feedback occurs through two main mechanisms. Policies generate resources and incentives for political actors, and they provide those actors with information and cues that encourage particular interpretations of the political world. These mechanisms operate in a variety of ways, but have significant effects on government elites, interest groups, and mass publics. By investigating how policies influence different actors through these distinctive mechanisms, the article outlines a research agenda for moving from the current focus on illustrative case studies to the investigation of broader propositions about how and when policies are likely to be politically consequential.

Paul Pierson is Associate Professor of Government at Harvard University. He is the author of Dismantling the Welfare State? Reagan, Thatcher, and the Politics of Retrenchment (forthcoming).

* For helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper I would like to thank Richard Valelly and the participants in the State and Capitalism and the American Political Development Seminars at Harvard University.