02 March 2009

The real revolution: targeting outcomes directly

The philosophes claimed that critical reason would prove emancipatory. Reason and science, they held, would make people more humane and happy. But certain scholars have recently been arguing that just the opposite occurred. When rulers and administrators heeded the promptings of 'reason', it was to increase their power and enhance their authority, in ways which often penalized the poor, weak, and inarticulate. Roy Porter, 'The Enlightenment'

Knowing what we do about the complexity of our society, it's less forgivable nowadays that at the time of the French Revolution to say we're targeting, say, poverty, by implementing policies whose effect, at best, is indirect. You do not target, for example, the wellbeing of people who are farming by a hugely elaborate system of import and price controls whose main beneficiaries are the very rich, agribusiness corporates and fraudsters. You do not, these days, necessarily raise literacy standards by spending more on education. Nor crime by spending more on police.

If we want to raise literacy, why not target literacy? If we want to reduce crime, why not reward people for reducing crime, however they do so? In short, why not target outcomes, rather than activities, institutions, inputs or outputs, and let the private sector, rather than the taxpayer, be penalised for failure? Revolutionary talk. But such would be the effect of a Social Policy Bond regime.

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