Acton Institute Powerblog

Incrementalism and Public Policy

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There’s a long-running debate among public policy commentators concerning the prudence of pursuing an all-or-nothing agenda or moving incrementally toward a particular goal.

How much accommodation is wise if that accommodation does make movement, however small, towards an ideal state of affairs, and yet also reinforces a system that is structurally opposed to the ultimate realization of that same ideal? When is it politically prudent to let the perfect potentially be the enemy of the good?

These questions in the context of all sorts of policy issues, but some examples include the libertarian concern to move toward a minimal or non-existent state, the pro-life concern to make abortion non-existent, and the gay “marriage” concern to legitimize and legalize same-sex partnerships.

The past week has seen a significant victory in this third arena in the state of California. When the state supreme court validated the practice of legal recognition of same-sex “marriage,” it cited the long history of the state government recognizing similar rights, privileges, and responsibilities for same-sex couples. That is, the incrementalist same-sex marriage approach, which sought sanction for same-sex adoption, same-sex partner health benefits, and so on, paved the way for the courts to recognize same-sex “marriage” as the last in a discernible line of logical public policy progression.

Citing a long list of moves by the state legislature to “equalize” treatment of same-sex couples (PDF of decision here, summary here), the majority concluded that “the current California statutory provisions generally afford same-sex couples the opportunity to enter into a domestic partnership and thereby obtain virtually all of the benefits and responsibilities afforded by California law to married opposite-sex couples.”

The perfectionist argument has been often based on a sort of Zeno’s paradox for public policy: accommodation or incrementalism may improve the state of affairs, but it likewise removes the possibility of achieving total victory. At least in the case of California and same-sex partnerships, that paradox seems to have been resolved in favor of the incrementalist approach.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • K

    For all the sound abstract arguments that can be made in favor of incrementalism (and there are many), this stark reality remains:

    Why must people suffer for being stuck in “slow” states? Yes, I know, there’s another abstraction that people can always “vote with their feet,” but that disregards the reality of jobs and other ties to a locale.

    Put another way: The California Supreme Court outlawed that state’s ban on interracial marriages in 1948. When the U.S. Supreme Court ended the national ban 19 years later, over a quarter or all the other states still had these bans on their books, and it’s possible that a few states might still have anti-miscegenation laws on their books had it not been for the Loving decision. Incrementalists would say that’s fine; Mississippi or Virginia or wherever will move along when they’re good and ready — but is that what reason and decency and justice say?

    Very few reasonable people doubt that marriage equality will be the law of the land some day, and that same-sex couples worried about legal and financial denied them should just be patient. I say, if we’re going forward sooner or later, why not sooner?

  • Tracy

    In the case of Ca, I believe the legalizing same sex couples had incremental agenda. In the last four years the mayor of SF has been a key playere in legalizing same sex partners. It is agenda to win the voters of the Gay Lesbian community to support his campaign to run as governor in a few years. Despite opposition from his own party and the current governor of CA, the CA Supreme court lifted the ban of Same sex couples. Still majority of the Ca leaders oppose the policy, I think the critical issue is whether the Nation in Novmeber will vote to support legalizing Same Sex couples.