What Is Incrementalism in Government? Definition and Examples

Incrementalism: Taking small steps toward big goals
Incrementalism: Taking small steps toward big goals. Getty Images

Incrementalism in government and political science is a method of achieving sweeping changes in public policy through the enactment of small policy changes over time. To succeed, incrementalism, also known as "gradualism", depends on mutual interaction, input, and cooperation among a multiplicity of individuals and groups representing different values and interests. Simply stated, the process of incrementalism may be best expressed by the old axiom, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!”

Key Takeaways: Incrementalism

  • Incrementalism is a method of achieving massive changes in public policy by implementing small changes slowly over time.
  • Incrementalism depends on and seeks the participation, input, and knowledge of all individuals and groups involved in the issue at hand.
  • Incrementalism is the opposite of the slower rational-comprehensive model of policy making, which requires the consideration of all possible solutions before any changes are implemented.
  • The widespread use of incrementalism was first recommended by political scientist Charles E. Lindblom in his 1959 essay titled The Science of ‘Muddling Through.’
  • Examples of sweeping social change realized through incrementalism include civil rights and racial equality, women’s voting rights, and gay rights. 

Origins

Although the intuitive step-by-step concept behind incrementalism has existed since humans began addressing problems, it was first suggested as a way of bringing about large changes in public policy in the late 1950s by political scientist Charles E. Lindblom.

In his 1959 essay "The Science of 'Muddling Through,'" Lindblom warned policymakers of the dangers to society posed by applying momentous policy changes before the effects of those changes had been fully identified and addressed. In this manner, Lindblom’s radical new approach of incrementalism represented the antithesis of the "rational-comprehensive" method of problem solving that had long been considered the best, if not only way, to develop major public policy.

In comparing the rational-comprehensive method of problem-solving with incrementalism, or as he called it in his essay, the “successive limited comparison” method, Lindblom argued that incrementalism better describes policymaking in the real world, thus resulting in better overall solutions than the rational model.

The Rational Model vs. Incrementalism

As a strictly top-down approach to problem solving, the rational-comprehensive model requires a full, detailed analysis of every factor that might affect a given set of circumstances, along with consideration of all imaginable solutions to the problem or issue at hand before any substantive action can be taken. Advocates say this results in the ideal solution because it considers the widest range of variables. Lindblom, however, contended that the rational method tends to result in overly complex bureaucratic processes that are often redundant, time consuming, and costly.

Lindblom considered rational-comprehensive policymaking to be unrealistic because, for most issues, its success depends on the unlikely satisfaction of two conditions: total agreement on all goals and objectives, and the ability of policymakers to accurately predict every consequence of every alternative solution being considered. Furthermore, the rational method offers policymakers no guidance on how to proceed when both conditions cannot be met. Incrementalism, argued Lindblom, allows for the creation of defensible policies even when problems that would stall the rational method inevitably arise.

In comparison, incrementalism allows problems and ever-changing needs to be addressed as they arise rather than creating overall one-size-fits-all strategic plans which often require costly and time consuming "fire-fighting" to implement acceptably.

Additionally, incrementalism emphasizes the importance of identifying, and incorporating the interests, values, and information held by all persons and groups involved in the policymaking process.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Perhaps the main advantage of incrementalism is its efficiency compared to more rigidly structured methods of policymaking. It wastes no time or resources planning for problems and outcomes which never materialize. While idealistic "Utopians" have criticized it as a slow and incoherent process, more realistic policymakers favor incrementalism as the most practical way of achieving major reforms gradually through a democratic process.

In this manner, incrementalism is politically expedient. Seeing it as a “safer,” less traumatic alternative to sudden, sweeping changes, elected lawmakers are easily encouraged to embrace incrementalism. By incorporating the input of all interests, solutions achieved through incrementalism tend to be more easily accepted by the public.

Disadvantages

The main criticism of incrementalism is the "beagle fallacy." While beagle hunting dogs have a very good sense of smell, they suffer from poor eyesight, often failing to detect prey animals standing right in front but downwind from them. Similarly, by taking small incremental "baby steps" toward their objectives, policymakers following the incrementalism model risk missing the overall goal of their task.

Incrementalism has also been criticized for wasting time and resources in constantly trying to solve immediate problems rather than in developing an overall strategy. As a result, say its critics, incrementalism can be misused as an underhanded way of bringing about radical changes in society that were not initially intended.

Examples

Whether recognized as such or not, incrementalism has resulted in many memorable changes in public policy and society.

Civil Rights and Racial Equality

Though the end of the Civil War in 1865 officially abolished the enslavement of Black people, the struggle of Black Americans for civil rights and equality would span the next 120 years.

U.S. National Guard troops block off Beale Street as Civil Rights marchers wearing placards reading, "I AM A MAN" pass by on March 29, 1968.
U.S. National Guard troops block off Beale Street as Civil Rights marchers wearing placards reading, "I AM A MAN" pass by on March 29, 1968. Bettmann/Getty Images

In 1868, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed Black people equal protection under the law, and in 1875, the 15th Amendment granted Black men the right to vote. However, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jim Crow laws in the South and de facto segregation in the North spurred Black Americans, along with many Whites, to demand further change.

Seeing it as a way for the government to appease Black people without actually ending racial segregation in America, Civil Rights Movement leader Martin Luther King, Jr. opposed incrementalism. In his famed I Have a Dream speech on August 28, 1963, he stated, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson took the first steps to fulfilling King’s dream by signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The landmark law also banned discrimination in voter registration and racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations.

A year later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned the use of literacy tests as a requirement to vote, and in 1968, the Fair Housing Act ensured equal housing opportunity regardless of race, religion, or national origin.

Women’s Right to Vote and Equal Pay

Woman Suffrage Party parade through New York, 1915.
Woman Suffrage Party parade through New York, 1915. Paul Thompson/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

From the first day of America’s independence, women were denied many of the rights granted to men, including the right to vote. However, from 1873, when Susan B. Anthony asked for equal pay for women teachers, to 1920, when the 19th Amendment ensured women the right to vote, the Women’s Suffrage Movement succeeded in gradually forcing the enactment of state and federal laws giving women the same rights and access to government as men.

Equal Pay for Women

Since the early 20th century, when women in America were allowed to work, they were routinely paid far less than men doing similar jobs. However, through an ongoing legislative struggle, the "glass ceiling" gender pay gap has slowly been narrowed. Signed by President Kennedy in 1963, the Equal Pay Act banned employers from paying men and women different wages or benefits for doing similar jobs. Since then, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 strengthened protections for pregnant workers; and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 reduced time restrictions on filing wage discrimination complaints.

Gay Rights

Gay and lesbian pride parade in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston, 1970.
Gay and lesbian pride parade in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston, 1970. Spencer Grant/Getty Images

Throughout the world, gay people have been discriminated against and denied certain rights and privileges, including the right to marry. In 1779, for example, Thomas Jefferson proposed a law that would have forced the castration of gay men. More than 200 years later, in 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court banned laws criminalizing sexual conduct between same-sex partners in its Lawrence v. Texas ruling. Through an ongoing process of incrementalism, most Western nations have slowly expanded the rights of gay and transgender people.

Sources and Further Reference