Why Do Bad Policies So Often Spread But Good Ones Don’t?

When the spread of COVID-19 had started to move the U.S. into action in early 2020, many states had to make decisions about policies regarding masks, school closures, stay at home orders, and numerous other topics. In many cases this decision making was made without strong experiments or evaluations of their effects tailored to the unique state dynamics. So how did they make these decisions? Did these decisions spread to other states?

In their new book Why bad policies spread (and good one’s don’t)Charles R. Shipan and Batten's Craig Volden draw from a wide range of policy domains to examine whether states learn from another to improve the spread of good or effective policies, which policies spread for which reasons, and which conditions lead to good or bad policies to spread, among other core questions. As they note:

“Evidence-based policymaking is so crucial to states learning from one another and to the spread of policies that are more beneficial than costly. There is a reason why states are called “policy laboratories.” They are experimenting with policies constantly. And the scientific community – both social scientists such as policy analysts, and natural scientists in individual areas impacted by policy choices – can benefit from evaluating those experiments and their effects.”

In many ways this book illustrates with clarity the immense complexity of policy, in particular, the chapter illustrating eighteen problems for the learning-based spread of good policies. Craig kindly answered some questions about their book below.

Why Bad Policies Spread (and Good Ones Don't)
"Why Bad Policies Spread (and Good Ones Don't)" by Charles R. Shipan and Craig Volden. (Cambridge University Press)

Why did you write this book?

So many important public policies are being addressed by state governments these days, from how to confront the pandemic to voting rights issues to abortion. And none of the states is acting in isolation. They are all eyeing one another for new ideas or to discern how well various policies work, with costs and benefits for the public as well as for politicians. 

On the one hand, such experimentation could lead to dramatic benefits for American federalism as a system of “states as policy laboratories.” On the other hand, so many of these policies are being heavily criticized and contested – often on partisan grounds, and often without waiting to see how well the policies actually work when put into practice.

We wrote this book to help sort out – in our own minds first, and then for our readers – just how these two views can be reconciled. When does the system work as it should for the spread of good policies, and when does it go (sometimes horribly) wrong?

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