01 January 2007

Government responses to terror

Government responses to random bombings, hijackings and other threats to our personal security are predictably incapable of adaptation, expensive and ineffectual. They owe more to the need to be seen to be doing something, however devoid of value that ‘something’ is. The problem, as with the provision of other government services, is that government does not know when to hand over to the people.

Provision of city sewerage systems in Victorian Britain was an essential task, and one that only government could do. But labelling cheese as junk food in 2007? A military-industrial complex, with professional forces and huge quantities of materiel was a valid response to threats of invasion. But checking every air passenger’s email and credit card accounts? Somewhere between these extremes, government has wandered away from the concerns of real people. It is now driven more and more by the inertia of a large and growing bureaucracy, whose over-arching goal is self-perpetuation.

Social Policy Bonds are an alternative approach. We do need government to articulate society’s goals, and to raise revenue to finance their achievement. But we don’t need go to stipulate how these goals are to be achieved. If the goal is to minimise threats from terrorism, then we need adaptive, diverse responses; not Pavlovian, one-size-fits-all reactions to news headlines. The New Year’s Eve bombings in Bangkok killed three people: over the three preceding days 179 people died on Thailand’s roads. We can be fairly sure which of the two threats to its citizens’ wellbeing the Thai Government will devote more attention to in the coming months. But I have another suggestion: issue Social Policy Bonds targeting premature deaths, and let the market allocate scarce resources to where they will achieve the highest return.

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