19 February 2009

Policy monoculture

Writing about stem rust, a devastating disease which threatens to wipe out much of the wheat crop in Africa, Sharon Schmickle writes:
In the biological churning that constantly endows old pests with new genetic combinations, stem rust had acquired a frightening ability to punch through the resistance that had guarded wheat for decades. Eighty percent of Asian and African wheat varieties are now susceptible, and so is barley.... In the Wheat Fields of Kenya, a Budding Epidemic, 'Washington Post', 18 February
I've written before about the dangers of a policy monoculture, most fully in my book. While it's a laudable aim to have broad overall goals for a large society, it's not at all helpful to prejudge the best way of achieving a goal and then to prescribe it to the exclusion of all others. The danger is analogous to that in agriculture: lack of diversity and a heightened risk of catastrophic failure. Diversity, responsiveness and the swift termination of inefficient projects are essential when it comes to solving social or environmental problems, which typically arise from a multiplicity of complex causes and are not amenable to command and control. It would be a shame if, as seems possible, government's tendency to assume it knows everything about, for instance, climate change or a healthy economy, causes it to invest all its - rather, 'our' - efforts in the solutions it currently prefers.

The Social Policy Bond principle could combine (1) government's expertise in defining social goals and raising the funds for their achievement, with (2) the market's efficiency in exploring different initiatives and terminating failures. For the example of climate change see here.

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