09 January 2007

Limits of big government threaten us all

Making policy is very much like thinking, in that it’s limited by the way it abstracts from reality the finite range of facts available to it. For makers of policy whose remit covers more than a family, clan, tribe or village, this should be a lesson in humility, because policymaking for large numbers of people inevitably entails the use of quantifiable data. Such data are equivalent, at the level of the individual, to our thoughts. Either way, they are extremely limited; what our minds can grasp, articulate and work on do not describe reality. They are individual facts, selectively taken from memory or, when making policy, aggregated, quantifiable information. Unfortunately, as the saying has it, ‘if the only tool you’ve got is a hammer, you’re going to see every problem as a nail’. And the only policymaking tool we have is our intellect backed up, sometimes, by statistics.

In the individual our thoughts have not (yet) completely crowded out our insight. We know, most of us, at some level, that our wellbeing is not defined by a set of discrete quantifiable circumstances, but is rather a state of mind, which we’d find very difficult to describe using the limited vocabulary of whatever language we speak.

Policymaking though is in a more parlous state; at the national and super-national levels anyway. For a start, it cannot interpret unprecedented threats, such as climate change or nuclear proliferation, in any but its own terms: that is, things to be negotiated, dealt with through the political process by existing institutional structures or new ones modelled on them. It cannot see social wellbeing as anything other than aggregated targets, with maximum Gross Domestic Product (or GDP per capita) as the target above all others. But GDP is grotesquely flawed for that purpose, and most other numerical goals are hardly more reliable indicators of social welfare. There are quantifiable measures that do correlate fairly strongly with meaningful social goals, but these tend to be at the lower levels of wealth, income, nutrition or education. At these levels, quantifiable increases do generate real, meaningful rises in opportunity and welfare.

But government has expanded far beyond helping the disadvantaged. It’s expanded into areas where its reliance on aggregated data is not only leading it awry, but into activities that crowd out the more adaptive, responsive and responsible instincts of real people. At the same time, the planet is confronted with challenges, such as climate change and nuclear proliferation, that government cannot meet. Most of the population is now so used to handing over responsibility to a large and remote public sector that we think that government will solve such problems. Or we think that if government cannot solve them, they cannot be solved. The remarkable ability of humans to adapt and survive, our prodigious energy and ingenuity, is stunted, or channelled into cynicism, despair or such flippant, but lucrative, pursuits such as the marketing of dog food, where the goals are immediate, identifiable and no threat to the existing order.

There is a widening gap between government and the people it’s supposed to represent. It wouldn’t matter very much of the public sector were small, and satisfied to remain so, and if real people controlled their own destiny. But the public sector is none of those things. It’s big, remote and intrusive, and it’s failing to meet our most urgent challenges. This combination could mean calamity, not just for millions, or hundreds of millions of human beings, but for the entire planet.

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