Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Modeling Regional Effects on State Policy Diffusion

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Modeling Regional Effects on State Policy Diffusion

Article excerpt

Generations of state politics scholars have believed that a U.S. state is more likely to adopt a law if its neighboring states have already done so, that is, that there is a positive regional effect on policy diffusion. But rarely has the social learning process, the theoretical underpinning of this effect, been examined critically. Furthermore, the statistical models used to assess this effect have been fundamentally flawed. In this article, I consider more fully the potential impacts of social learning on policy diffusion, and develop a simple approach to modeling these impacts more flexibly. Using this approach, I take a fresh look at data from two classic studies of state policy diffusion and demonstrate that the regional effect is more complex than previously believed.

What is the effect on the chances of a polity adopting a law of its neighboring polities having already adopted it? That is, is there a regional effect on policy diffusion? Generations of state politics scholars have believed that a U.S. state is more likely to adopt a law if its neighboring states have already done so, that is, that there is a positive regional effect on policy diffusion (Stream 1999; Mooney and Lee 1995; Berry and Berry 1990; Lutz 1986; Light 1978; Walker 1969; Sutherland 1950; McVoy 1940; Davis 1930). Recently, this argument has also appeared in the literature on cross-national policy diffusion (Rose 1993: 97; Bennett 1991). This belief in a positive regional diffusion effect has been sustained over many years despite the fact that the theoretical processes behind such an effect have rarely been explicated clearly, and the empirical evidence regarding the effect has been mixed, at best (Hays and Glick 1997; Mintrom 1997; Berry and Berry 1992; Lutz 1986).

Diffusion theory is based on a social learning process, and in this article I explore more explicitly than has typically been done just what it means for a polity to learn from its neighbors. If we want to understand how and why polities adopt policies, we must understand how policymakers learn from the policies adopted by their neighbors (Bennett 1991; Mintrom and Vergari 1998; Lamothe 1998). Normative discussion of the benefits of policymakers learning from the experiences of their peers abounds (Weimer 1993; Schneider and Ingram 1988; Osborne 1988; Rose 1993), but very little research has been done to specify critically or to assess empirically the various patterns that such a process could take on.

I begin this article by specifying potential learning effects on regional diffusion and exploring these using computer simulation. These exploratory analyses suggest that the regional effect is neither always positive nor always constant, contrary to traditional thinking. Next, I model the regional effect empirically in flexible, fully specified event history analyses replicating the classic Berry and Berry (1990, 1992) studies of state lottery and income tax diffusion. I conclude that the regional effect on state policy diffusion implies a more complex process of policy learning than previous research has suggested.

POLICY LEARNING AND REGIONAL POLICY DIFFUSION

Social learning theory provides the theoretical basis for the literature on policy diffusion (Glick and Hays 1991; Weimer 1993; Schneider and Ingram 1988; Rose 1993). However, most state policy diffusion' studies fail to explore fully the potential variation in this process and the resulting regional effects (Lamothe 1998). The roots of this diffusion-as-social learning paradigm are in the vast literature on rural sociology, education, and communications that explores the geographical diffusion of a variety of innovations among people and organizations (see Rogers 1995 for a comprehensive review). In this literature, diffusion is tantamount to communication (Rogers 1995: ch. 1), where an innovation spreads through a word-of-mouth process, from neighbor to neighbor.

This geographical learning line of thought was readily accepted by state politics scholars for at least two reasons. …

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