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  Incrementalism (Latin incrementum, ‘increase’ + ‘ism’), in political science, is the theory of decision-making developed by Charles Lindblom (see below). It suggests that decisions are necessarily circumscribed by experience and are subject to cognitive and information-processing costs. It also implies that most successful decision-making is conservative with a small ‘c’: that is, based on small deviations from the status quo. The theory was developed in reaction to the theory of comprehensively ‘rational’ decision-making, which asserts that rational decision-makers should evaluate all available options before selecting that option which optimizes their goals.

Incrementalism assumes that in most political and policy-making circumstances this kind of decision-making is not possible because it presupposes what cannot be (for instance, perfect information, perfect knowledge, low-cost time to evaluate all possible options, and decision-makers who know exactly what they want). In most circumstances the best predictor of what policy-makers do today is what they did yesterday (plus or minus a small change, an increment or decrement). They cannot optimize, so they focus on a few feasible options, and they frequently proceed within an existing consensus rather than by radically deviating from the status quo. Moreover, incrementalism assumes that democratic decision-makers generally proceed through ‘partisan mutual adjustment’, rather than through centralized and heroic planning. Less grandly they ‘muddle through’.

Incrementalists say that their case is demonstrated by the way in which most states make their budgets: programmes are not rationally and comprehensively evaluated, instead policy-makers focus on marginal additions or reductions to programmes. There is a natural affinity between pluralism and incrementalism, but Lindblom, the pioneer of reflection on incremental decision-making, has become progressively more critical of incrementalism both as a positive account of decision-making and as a normative guide to decision-making, although he remains sceptical of the claims of the policy sciences and practitioners of what he calls ‘professional social inquiry’. BO\'L

See also game theory.Further reading C. Lindblom, The Intelligence of Democracy; Politics and Markets; , C. Lindblom and , D. Cohen, Usable Knowledge: Social Science and Social Problem Solving.



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