Policymaking from the Top Down
The discovery that in all large-scale societies the decisions at any given time are typically in the hands of a small number of people confirms a basic fact: Government is always government by the few, whether in the name of the few, the one, or the many.
-- HAROLD LASSWELL
PUBLIC POLICY IN America, as in all nations, reflects the values, interests, and preferences of the governing elite. The assertion that public policy reflects the "demands of the people" expresses the myth rather than the reality of democracy. However widespread this myth is believed by the people, and however artfully this myth is defended by scholars, the reality is that public policy is made from the top down.
To say that public policy in a democratic society is made from the top down is not to disparage democracy. The underlying values of democracy--liberty and equality--define individual dignity. These are fundamental moral values, not granted by governments, but belonging to every individual as a matter of natural right. And government by the consent of the governed--with free, periodic, competitive elections in which each person's vote is equal to that of every other person--defines the minimal processes of democracy.
Yet power is unequally distributed in all societies. No government can promise its citizens effective participation in all of the decisions that affect their lives. At most in the United States, only a few thousand individuals have any direct influence over public policy. Even the most ardent defenders of American democracy do not claim that the nation's 275 million people can be brought together to make national decisions: "People could be born, grow old, and die while they waited for such an assembly to make one decision." 1 The Founders of the nation never even considered including national referenda voting in the U.S. Constitution.
Power in American society is concentrated in the hands of the relatively few people who control its largest organizations and institutions. These are the people who make policy for the nation; they are the "national elite." Even in a democ-