06 April 2007

More versus better

[P]erhaps most surprisingly, growth no longer makes us happier. Given our current dogma, that's as bizarre an idea as proposing that gravity pushes apples skyward. Bill McKibben, Reversal of Fortune, ‘Mother Jones’ March/April       
In our individual lives we make choices for ourselves, and if we don’t think more income or wealth is worthwhile, we trade more for a better quality of life. Things go awry when those decisions are taken out of our hands. Most western governments target growth above all else. Since they have around 40 per cent of national income to spend and the power to create statutes that heavily influence much of the rest of our lives, governments’ goals play a big part in society’s sacrifice of (in Mr McKibben’s terms) better for more.

Of course, governments’ goals should be close to those of the people they are supposed to represent. But, as with all big organisations, institutional goals tend to take over. Growth and complexity tend to go hand-in-hand, as does complexity and the gap between people and their government. So there is a self-reinforcing cycle that leads to the disengagement of people from politics, and the substitution of politicians’ goals for those of ordinary people. They two sets of goals are quite distinct: and the choices of governments, given their huge economic and legal power, quite critical. One disastrous result is environmentally harmful subsidies, which mainly benefit large corporations at the expense of the physical and social environment, small businesses and ordinary citizens. Most of us would probably trade off some of the more measurable indicators of economic wellbeing for an enhanced quality of life. But the choice is largely out of our hands: it’s made by our governments on our behalf and they have every interest in maintaining their symbiotic relationship with large corporations. So when it comes to a choice between more and better, it’s more every time.

Social Policy Bonds are not just about efficiency: they’re about subordinating government policy not to the wishes of large businesses, but to outcomes that are meaningful to, and chose with the participation of, ordinary people. Under a Social Policy Bond regime, government would articulate people’s wishes and raise revenue for their achievement, but the actual goals, and the ways in which they would be achieved, would be decided by wider society. The benefits are not just greater public participation in choosing policy goals, but greater efficiency in achieving them.

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