As we consider the re-zoning of land in Woodland, Upper Marlboro so that someday we can build a strip mall at Crain Corner, the wicked, messy world of land use policy comes in to clear focus. I am indebted to the work of Dr. Robert Lackey for my land use "riff" on his essay: Axioms of Ecological Policy, National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, Corvallis, Oregon 97333
Policy Axiom 1 — The policy and political dynamic is a zero-sum game
The most unsettling part of development, land use and ecological policy for most residents and stakeholders is that the selection of any proposed policy will result in winners and losers. There is no “win-win” policy, which we of course expect our politicians to find; the search is fruitless even at a superficial “political” level of analysis. To quote Dr, Lackey, “There are always winners and losers even though people running for office may try to convince the voters otherwise.”
In the escalating quest for land, a finite resource, in areas of expanding human populations or expanding economic activity, the competition for developable land can be fierce and nasty. Any land use decision results in a set of winners and another set of losers. The winners and losers may be those in this generation or future generations, obvious or vague elements of society, or in near or distant regions. The benefits and costs may be both monetary and nonmonetary; may be realized immediately or over many years; and may be diffused across many segments of society or concentrated on a few. As in most policy options result in some interest groups getting what they want (or at least most of what they want), others getting little or none of what they want, and still others ending up somewhere in between. In short, the role of the policy analyst is often to identify for the policy maker who are the winners and who are the losers. In contrast, the role of the policy maker is to decide who wins and who loses.
Searching for the nonexistent but ever politically tantalizing win-win solution
often ends up frustrating everyone. Except for the most trivial policy issues, compromise is necessary to craft a proposed policy that is democratically possible. Thus, Land-use and its sub set of ecological policy winds up as the classic zero-sum game. Accepting this reality encourages serious discussion about how to best resolve complex development, land use and ecological policy issues.
Policy Axiom 2 — The distribution of benefits and costs is more important
than the ratio of total benefits to total costs
Benefits are the consequences of a policy options or decisions that are categorized
as good outcomes. Benefits are sometimes measured solely in terms of money, but are
more broadly encompassed by all the desirable things that are most likely to happen.
Conversely, the costs are the undesirable outcomes that are likely to happen (often, but
not always, measured in monetary terms). Complicating policy analysis is that, exclusive of money, one person’s benefits may be another’s costs. Preserving a wetland, for example, is a benefit for those wishing to preserve such land in its unaltered condition, but such a policy option is a cost to those who wish to ditch and drain the same land to build a retail strip mall.
To the uninitiated it may seem that the most important factor in decision making
is weighing the total benefits against the total costs. Rather, it is usually the case that the most important factor is the perception of who receives the benefits vs. who will bear
Weighing costs vs. benefits is tricky. Because costs and benefits are not simply the things that are measurable, but include loss of personal freedoms, religious or spiritual preferences, individual rights, etc. Benefits and costs can be categorized as either “real” or “perceived.” Real benefits and costs are the things that analysts are keen to measure, perhaps mostly because they can be measured. Perceived benefits and costs, however are the things that people mostly weigh in determining their position on a particular policy issue. They are arguably impossible to measure with much confidence.
Policy Axiom 3 — The most politically viable policy choice spreads the
benefits to a broad majority with the costs limited to a narrow minority of the
Democracies theoretically operate on delegated compromise validated by periodic voting. To gain sufficient political support (votes) for a proposed policy, it is prudent for
the decision maker to spread the benefits across a sufficiently large number of people to garner majority support. The corollary is that those (including future generations) who bear the costs should be a minority and the smaller the better. In political dialog the narrowly-defined minority is often labeled pejoratively as a “special interest” or some other term meant to isolate the group from the majority and weaken the force of its argument.
Consider the question of whether a particular dam should be removed to help
restore native aquatic species. Almost assuredly the policy debate will be framed as a
conflict between the general interests of society (e.g., providing reliable electricity,
protecting native species, or maintaining cheap barge transportation) vs. special interests (e.g., greedy electric power companies, elite environmentalists, or corporate grain farmers). To market their policy preference, proponents will try to couch their choice as that of the majority (mainstream) and the opponent’s position as being that of a small minority (special interest).
Or consider the strip mall proposal which is framed as one of economic activity in construction and jobs as well as one of providing service to the greater community versus the environment and history. Each side of this debate will claim to be in a majority
None of these policy advocacy tactics necessarily are wrong, immoral, or unethical, but rather reflect the nature of democratic debate. Those involved in policy analysis or providing science to help inform policy debates, however, should be attuned to such tendencies.
Policy Axiom 4 — Potential losers are usually more assertive and vocal than
potential winners and are, therefore, disproportionately important in decision making
With many policy questions, those who bear the costs, the losers, have a disproportionately greater influence on the decision making process. While policy analysis tends to evaluate the rationality of competing policy arguments, the political process tends to weigh breath and vigor in support of each competing policy option.
Issues of perceived fairness are important in the political process, but difficult to quantify
in policy analysis.
For example, consider the possible listing (under the U.S. Endangered Species Act
or the Canadian Species at Risk Act) of a fish species found only in a relatively small
geographical area. Except for committed preservationists, most people see the issue as
not pivotal although they may philosophically support species preservation in general.
In contrast, those whose land and livelihood will be adversely affected are likely to be
aggressively hostile to the proposed listing.
Policy Axiom 5 — Many advocates will cloak their arguments as science to
mask their personal policy preferences
Technocrats, as I apply the label, are individuals with scientific training who are responsible for implementing law, land use or zoning codes or ecological policy. There is an understandable impulse by technocrats to insert what they think is or should be the appropriate public policy goal or option. For example, should ecological restoration be aimed at recreating the ecological condition that existed at the beginning of the Holocene, just prior to 1492, or at the end of last week? The answer requires making a value judgment C a policy choice which is necessarily a political judgment C and it is not a scientifically derived decision. Ecologists and other scientists should assess the feasibility and ecological consequences of achieving each possible restoration target. Selecting from among the choices, however, is a societal enterprise.
Similarly, notions of degraded or damaged ecosystems, the metaphors of
ecosystem health or biotic integrity, or the relative importance ascribed to natural
conditions vs. altered conditions need to be calibrated by societal values and preferences, not by those offered by scientists and technocrats. For example, one person’s Adamaged@ecosystem is another person’s Aimproved@ ecosystem. A Ahealthy@ ecosystem can be either a malarial swamp or the same land converted to an intensively managed strip mall. Neither can be seen as objectively Ahealthy@ except through the lens of an individual’s values and preferences.
Policy Axiom 6 — Demonizing policy advocates supporting competing policy
options is often more effective than presenting rigorous analytical arguments
Some people become frustrated when they fail to recognize that political debates are partly logical argument and partly image. Negative images are often considered more effective in swaying people than positive ones.
In fractious land use policy debates, proponents often spend more energy demonizing their opponents than sticking to rational policy analysis. Experience shows that such tactics are often effective in policy debates; many people are moved by negative arguments.
The conflict is over which of the myriad competing human priorities is most important — food, electricity, water, transportation, fishing, or a host of others. To label proponents of abundant electricity, efficient farming, cheap transportation, or shopping malls as “enemies of the environment” is unfair in policy debates and counter productive. Rather, each policy choice or priority tends to constrain others.
Policy Axiom 7 — If something can be measured accurately and with
confidence, it is probably not particularly relevant in decision making
The most important factors in policy making cannot be quantified or at least not quantified in a credible way. Examples of such unquantifiable but important
factors are weighing the relative importance of electricity vs. the well-being of threatened species, balancing a prosperous farming sector vs. maintaining runs of wild salmon, or sustaining a high degree of personal mobility vs. a high level of air quality through emission regulations on automobiles, or even protecting a open space habiat vs. creating a strip mall..
The disconnect between what matters most to policy makers and what can be measured is a reality that should recognize and which will not likely change in the foreseeable future. In a pluralistic society, with a wide array of values and preferences competing for dominance, the land use policy debate is usually centered around whose values and preferences will carry the day rather than over scientific or technical information.
Policy Axiom 8— The meaning of words matters greatly and arguments over
their precise meaning are often surrogates for debates over values
Many citizens get frustrated in land use and ecological policy debates because
the advocates of various competing choices often seem to argue over semantic nuances rather than getting on with making decisions. The precise meaning ascribed to key words is important and is often the battleground over what policy option is ultimately selected. The debate over definitions is really a policy debate. How should pivotal words such as “ecosystem health,” “sustainability,” “degraded,” “biological integrity,”
“endangered,” “wild,” “congested”, “declining property values” and “impaired” be defined? Definitions chosen will lead (at least in the mind of the uninformed) to a particular policy option. Thus, the debate over what might appear to be semantic nuances is really a surrogate debate over values and policy preferences. Because certain definitions tend to help support one particular policy preference, participants in policy debates devote considerable energy to trying to get their definitions adopted.
Citation: Lackey, Robert T. 2006. Axioms of ecological policy.
Fisheries. 31(6): 286-290.
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. "A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy.
"It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil—he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego." He continued, "The other is good—he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you—and inside every other person, too."
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"
The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."
First People - The Legends. Cherokee Legend of Two Wolves. November 16, 2004. [accessed April 7, 2012].