15 April 2007

Complexity exaggerates role of ideology

Commenting on Edmund Wilson’s view of the American Civil War and the literature that resulted, and then about the current Iraq imbroglio, Inigo Thomas writes:

[N]ever before had Americans found themselves so articulate while also failing to convey any sense of what actually happened. … The Iraq war, untidy and unkempt to say the least, has produced an even more stunning mass articulatenesss….. New books, magazine articles and blog entries go on endlessly about Bush and the neo-cons, how they skittled the war in Iraq because they were incompetent or because of their bad planning. If only the administration had listened to…. First Puppet, Now Scapegoat, 'London Review of Books', 30 November 2006
It’s not Mr Thomas’s main point, but one issue raised is: how can the experts get it so wrong? Well, Mr Thomas goes on to say that as far as the ‘Bush, Cheney and their friends’ were concerned: ‘Whether democracy in the Middle East thrived or failed – that doesn’t seem to have mattered…’ I’m not sure I agree with Mr Thomas on that, but regardless of what one thinks of this particular failure, there are plenty of other, less spectacular, but equally appalling policy disasters at a time of unprecedented articulateness. There are knowledgeable experts on virtually every subject. Sometimes their facts or interpretations appear to conflict, but more often, I believe, the increasing volume of available information fails to improve policymaking because either:

  • the real drivers of policy are ideological (as seems to be the case with Bush et al), or

  • the rising tide of information is rendered next-to-useless by the increasing complexity of our society and environment.
Perhaps the two are linked; in the face of so much complexity, the thinking is that we might as well just go with our prejudices. That’s one reason I favour subordinating policy not to ideology, and not even to the latest readings of the masses of information available on any subject, whether it be climate change, how to stop wars and civil wars, or how to reduce crime levels. The information available to policymakers at any one time is almost as fixed as our prejudices: it’s not always a solid basis for policy, especially for long-term goals. My previous post talked about climate change and new findings that in some parts of the world, more trees might accelerate global warming. This may or may not be true, but building long-term policy on fossilised science is not going to work: we need dynamic, adaptive strategies; and we need people other that policymakers to have incentives to investigate the most efficient solutions.

Social Policy Bonds do both: they target explicit, transparent goals, and they make rewards contingent on achieving those goals. By contracting out the achievement of social goals to the market, they maximise the efficient use of our scarce resources. There might still be failures: bringing peace and democracy to the Middle East is a lofty and probably an extremely remote goal. Under a bond regime, it might never be achieved, but what is certain is that US taxpayers would not then have to pay for the failure.

No comments: