Punctuated Equilibrium and Public Choice Approaches

The Punctuated Equilibrium Model is also known as the Punctuated Equilibrium Approach (PEA). The policy model which explains the drastic drift from the previous policies is the Punctuated Equilibrium Approach. It is used to analyze and understand how the change will take place from one policy to another policy. According to Oxford Learner’s dictionary, Punctuated means to interrupt something at intervals. Equilibrium means a state of balance. It is also known as “Stasis” in biology.

The concept of punctuated equilibrium was first proposed in 1972 by palaeontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, who both believed that evolution occurred in rapid, radical spurts rather than gradually over time. PEA is initially developed by analyzing the American federal government public policy models. Its origin is related to evolutionary biology.

Public policy mostly remain in the stasis period because 

  • A lot many actors involved in it
  • There may not be a suitable solution
  • Reframing may not ensure the success of that policy
  • No majority opposition as such

Features of Punctuated Equilibrium Approach (PEA):

  • PEA can occur through disruptive dynamics.

External factors that influence policy-makers in decision making can be regarded as disruptive dynamics. For instance, the railway minister takes account of different states interests along with his political party interest while announcing new railway lines.

  • Systems may be stable without being in equilibrium.

In this case, policy-makers, public institutions, pressure groups, political parties may not insert pressure to change the existing policy. Instead, they accepted the policy without any change. So, the system will be stable till the drastic change.

  • Large changes are not often but occur in rare periods.

Ex: Demonetization in India in 2016, removal of article 370, introducing GST, etc,

  • The punctuated equilibrium approach supports disjointed, episodic and unpredictable policies.

Disjoined states that there is no connection between previous and current policies and Episodic means they occur in intervals and future outcomes are not predictable.

  • PEA supports serial processing as well as parallel processing.


PEA applying in the Indian context:

Let us take an example of Good and Service Tax (GST) in India. It Came into effect on July 1, 2017. It is regarded as an important policy change since independence. 

  • Many finance experts and committees influenced the introduction of GST.
  • Before the GST, people have accepted or accustomed to the Value added tax (VAT). 
  • It implies a sudden change in the tax system.
  • GST reform is not connected with any of the previous policies of the government; it is a policy change that occurred rarely, as the formulation of GST is a sudden shift, the certainty of outcomes was uncertain. 
  • Likewise, abrogation of Article 370, demonetization in 2016, Triple Talaq, and Introduction of NRC can be seen as examples of Punctuated Equilibrium Approach (PEA).


  1. The punctuated equilibrium approach gave less importance to public institutions and political parties.
  2. Transformation in a policy is seen as disruptive but sometimes it can also bring progress in the society.
  3. Not all innovative policies launched by the policymakers can be termed under PEA. Make in India, Swachh Bharath Abhiyan initiatives are innovative policies that can hardly be considered under punctuation.

Public choice Approach

The Public Choice Approach (PCA) is an attempt to understand public policies using economic models and their impact on individuals. It is an application of Neo-classical economics to study politics and public policy. It is understood that economics study individual behavior in the market for fulfilling the individual interest and political science for the study of individual behavior in the public sphere for the public interest. 

Public choice is the economic study of non-market decision-making, especially, the application of economic analysis to public policy-making.

Thomas R Dye

The basic assumption of public choice is that the entire individuals involved in politics are rational and self-interest economic men and women. This approach is used as a tool to analyze various political phenomena such as voter behavior, party politics, different stakeholder opinions and actions of the government. Many of the promises made in politics are intended to appear concerned with the interest of others, but in reality, are the products of selfish ulterior motives. Political scientist, Downs argues that the motivation of individual officials is diverse such as power, money, income, prestige, loyalty etc., 

Areas of Public choice:

1. Median voter theorem: 

The theory states with simplifying assumptions that a majority rule through the voting system is the outcome of the median voter preference. The Median Voter Theorem is highly useful in explaining the actions of political parties and their leaders. The concept is based on numerous assumptions, such as single-peaked preferences and a one-dimensional political spectrum. The political ideology can be represented on a simple political spectrum from Left to Right. Then leftist and rightist voters are obvious in nature. So candidates strive to get the votes lying in the center. They try to behave moderately to achieve center votes.

2. Political Business cycle: 

The concept of the political business cycle applies the public choice methodology to understand the existing government as a rational actor in terms of achieving its goal of electing. The inflation must be slow down before the election and the political parties also offer some freebie schemes to the voters. After the election, the inflation and unemployment rates will rise. 

3. Interest and pressure groups :

The interest groups influence the public-policy making process. They rarely bear the costs of that action but want to get benefit from those policies. Public policies also mostly made to satisfy the wants of the most influential pressure groups.

4. Rent-seeking 

It is a concept in public choice theory as well as in economics that involves seeking to increase one’s share of existing wealth without creating new wealth. According to the advocates of the concept, rent-seeking results in reduced economic efficiency through misallocation of resources, reduced wealth-creation, lost government revenue.

5. Principle agent model 

The agent who delivers the service has his/her own hidden agenda to maximize the profit and the receiver too have some rational expectations. The three types of opportunistic behavior are hidden characteristics, hidden intention and hidden action.


  • The public choice approach lacks empirical tests and evidence. 
  • It is critical towards social welfare spending and inclined more towards market values.
  • It reduced entire human actions just to the economic aspect.

Source: UGC MOOC Course on Public policy

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