The Myth of State Policy Innovation

All too often, policies are simply replicated from state to state with little attention to research showing that they work.
May 28, 2015
By David Schultz  |  Contributor
David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University

Many state legislatures are not professional or full-time, or they lack extensive research staff to undertake policy work. So they turn to other states to see what they have done. States may find out about other states' policy initiatives at conferences, such as those of the Council of State Governments or the National Conference of State Legislatures, and then adopt those policies as their own with minor modifications.

Sometimes those policies are good ones, but more often borrowing from other states is a short-cut mechanism that results in policies that fail to deliver. States become creatures of me-tooism, repeating and replicating policy initiatives found elsewhere without asking if in fact they work. States are mythologized as laboratories of public-policy innovation. The reality is often they are no more than factories of replication, captured by political myths and doomed to re-enact failed policies.

Why does this process keep playing out? States may adopt similar polices in response to a common problem. Or they might feel compelled to respond similarly in order to remain competitive with one another. As one state cuts taxes, others may feel a similar need to do so, especially if businesses threaten to exit if they do not get what they want.

As a result, the policy-making process is often captured by failed public policies and political myths. Failed public policies are those that are repeatedly proposed, only to fail again, even when there is social-science research indicating that they will not achieve their stated aims. Political myths are ideas that, like urban folk legends, are often repeated or held up as true even though there is no hard evidence to support them or, worse, data contradicting them. One example is the idea that people will migrate from one state to another in search of more generous welfare benefits. Another is that immigrants are a drain on the economy. These ideas often replicate themselves over and over, never to die the deaths they deserve.

In my book American Politics in the Age of Ignorance: Why Lawmakers Choose Belief Over Research, I catalog some of the more common political myths and failed public policies that are repeatedly enacted. These are policies, such as those addressing term limits, voter fraud and the building of sports stadiums as economic development projects, that have been largely and empirically discredited yet still are embraced by legislators and policymakers across the country.

At the top of any list of political myths is the idea that tax burdens and incentives are serious factors affecting business-relocation decisions. The literature is clear: Tax breaks to encourage economic relocation are economically inefficient and wasteful. Hundreds of studies reach this conclusion. The same is true about enterprise zones.

So if the evidence suggests that some public-policy ideas are myths or if they have been shown to be defective based upon social-science research, how can one explain their immortality?

The simplest answer is that many elected officials, policymakers and members of the public may be unaware that the policies do not work. The lack of legislative staff time and resources to do research reinforce this lack of awareness.

In some cases, there is the belief that if something worked in one place it will work in another, or that while it did not deliver as promised somewhere else things might work out better this time or in this place. The massive expansion of convention centers and aquariums is an example of this belief at work: Overbuilding diluted a good idea. More cynically, interest-group politics, as well as the impact of money in politics, account for why some policies endure despite evidence to the contrary.

State legislatures should make policy based on the best available evidence at hand. But by blindly adopting from one another without seriously asking whether the borrowed policies worked, or whether those that did seem to work in one state will work in others, they continue to feed the myth of state policy innovation.