14 January 2006

Abandon your principles!

The important thing in moral life is to do what is right, not to expound the principle which makes it so; and so often the principle eludes us, even when the rightness of the act is clear. England, Roger Scruton (page 114)

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my periodic outbursts against ideology as a policy driver. How often do we speak with good, well-meaning people who are committed to a particular political party, or who identify themselves with a particular political grouping? Then you come across their blind spot, where application of their ideology led to undeniably unfortunate results…but they can’t see that. We probably all have such blind spots. The richness and complexity of history, and the application of selective memory mean that most of us can plausibly attribute all the bad things that happen to the beliefs, politicians, countries or cultures that we don’t like, and all the good things to the successes of the ideology that we favour.

It’s just not good enough now, if it ever were. In an increasingly complex world, relationships between policy programmes and their outcomes are ever more difficult to identify and the consequences of failure ever more disastrous. Our lazy tendency to impose a binary worldview on such potential crises as climate change, terrorism or a nuclear-armed Iran could easily prove fatal – to all of us.

It’s time to quit looking for an all-embracing ideology that tells us whom we can rely on, or how best to approach every political, social or environmental problem. We cannot rely on any god, religion, political approach or economic belief system. All the evidence is that they insufficiently diverse and adaptive to a very complex, dynamic world.

The solution? Subordinate all policy to outcomes. It’s much easier to get consensus on what we as a society want to achieve. A government can then issue Social Policy Bonds. And if we don’t want to get a government involved, and we have a clear idea about what we want to achieve, and sufficient wealth (or wealthy sympathisers) we can issue our own Social Policy Bonds. Ditch ideology, and think in terms of outcomes. Or, as a memorable line in Southern Comfort put it:

Comes a time when you have to abandon principles and do what’s right.

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