Abstract

Politcy entrenchment per se is a neutral concept; both good and bad policies may become entrenched. A policy trap, however, is entrenchment’s pathological form: a self-reinforcing array of policies that simultaneously creates 1) well-established, often widely recognized failures in society and 2) high barriers to change. A familiar type of policy trap arises when the benefits of a policy are concentrated, while the costs, albeit greater, are widely diffused, opaque to many who bear them, or seemingly remote. But policy traps are not necessarily permanent; they may persist only as long as reformers are unable to identify their vulnerabilities and seize moments of political opportunity. Reconstituting a domain of policy ultimately requires formulating an alternative. Without presuming to be exhaustive, this article outlines four general strategies for overcoming policy entrenchment: Schumpeterian innovation; globally oriented innovation; institutional conversion; and social creativity (the non-market analog to Schumpeterian change). Focusing on three areas, the article examines how policy traps have arisen and might be overcome in fossil fuels, the internet economy, and the U.S. health-care system.

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