27 July 2007

Explicit goals

Commenting on an article about Henry Kissinger's role in US foreign policy, a Darian Diachock writes:

The pedestrian character of how these foreign policy wonks think fascinates me. You think ... PhD in some humanities field, experience in international trade, complex issues matrices, and so on. But no, it’s “We need to humiliate them,” or “We need to kick around some crappy little country to show we need business.” Makes you realize that it’s not brilliance but connections that results in high-level appointments. Certainly, the quality of thought isn’t “high-level”.
I would argue that any single mind, however brilliant, will be deficient when it comes to deciding what society's goals are and how to go about achieving them. When I write about Social Policy Bonds I tend to stress their efficiency as compared with current policymaking. But perhaps as important as any of those attributes is that they would change the way in which the very goals of policy are decided. The goals themselves would drive policy; under a bond regime a government would have to state its goals explicitly and transparently. Going to war for the petty reasons to which Mr Diachock refers, would be a hard sell. The goals of such an undertaking would have to be clearly stated. To attract investors they'd also have to be feasible and objectively verifiable. And, critically, they'd also have to be costed, in the sense that the maximum cost to taxpayers would be stipulated in advance.

The goals of many of our most costly policies are rarely specified very accurately. Governments are more comfortable with inputs (spending) decisions than with defining broad outcomes and rewarding those who achieve them, whoever they may be. It's partly for historical reasons and partly also because nobody likes to give up power. A Social Policy Bond regime would limit the power of government to specify how its goals shall be achieved, and who is to be charged with achieving them. But government could still articulate society's goals, and would still be responsible for raising the finance to reward the achievers. These are things it could do quite well; more so when it has to convince a skeptical market about the validity and feasibility of its goals rather than appeal to a few highly-placed ideologues with their own agendas.

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