23 June 2007

Policymaking is over-specialised

One day during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister was thinking aloud:

Mesopotamia...yes...oil...irrigation...we must have Mesopotamia; Palestine...yes... the Holy Land... Zionism...we must have Palestine; Syria...h'm...what is there in Syria? Let the French have that. Arnold Toynbee, quoted in Paris 1919, by Margaret MacMillan
Throughout this fascinating book it's hard not to sympathise with the conference delegates. Whatever they decided was doomed from the start. They came as representatives of their countries or people - and by virtue of that, I think, they were bound to generate serious problems. Their success or failure was measured not by what they did for the wellbeing of their people or its individual members, nor even by the overall wellbeing of their people, but by a few not-always-meaningful indicators that become important mainly because they are shared by other interest groups. Let me try to clarify: in the case of the Paris Peace Conference, areas of control, political power, and reparations from Germany were the main things on the agenda. The remit of Lloyd George et al was not to maximise the total long-term wellbeing of their population: that's a difficult thing to quantify and difficult to explain to an opposition back home. Instead, a few, short-term and symbolic indicators were implicitly chosen as the ways in which the delegates' performance would be measured.

It's implicit in the form. The politicians of that time, as nowadays, are highly specialised; the result of a large gap between real people, and their alleged representatives. That gap was shrinking in the west, partly as a result of the social disruption caused by the Second World War (though there are ominous signs that it's widening). The politics of interest groups is quite distinct from the concerns of the individual. It is a specialised form, and its goals are specialised too. But when interest groups increase their power, as they tend to do, a vicious circle is set up. It is not always in ordinary people's long-term interest to classify themselves as 'British', or 'Muslims', or 'trade unionists' or whatever, to the exclusion of more human, rounded forms, but those are the labels that people in power will want to put on us. As with the Paris 1919 delegates, they are just as much victims of this misperception as the rest of us. A world of warring factions, whether they be empires, nation-states, religions, social classes or whatever, seems to be the inevitable result.

One solution could be to do away altogether with the specialised group of power-wielders, or at least to curtail their powers drastically. A Social Policy Bond regime would do that in two ways. First, by taking away the (often exclusive) powers of government (and its corporate friends) to supply health, education and welfare services. Second, it would devolve decision-making about what society should and should not target away from a specialised caste of policymakers back to ordinary people.

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