21 June 2009

Success cannot always be codified

For anyone who genuinely wants to quit smoking, an Easyway session can be both an enlightening and exhilarating experience. For an observer, especially a non-smoker, it must be as interesting as reading the instructions for assembling a model aircraft kit, without have the slightest intention of actually putting the contraption together. After sitting through four four-hour sessions, [Dr] Judith [Mackay, Director of the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control and anti-smoking campaigner] had to admit that she could not fathom how the method works. Not knowing the answer to this question has never bothered me.... Allen Carr, Packing it in the Easy Way (page 237)

There are large, important areas of individual life where even after we have achieved something, we find it difficult to articulate how we did it. Mr Carr's Easyway method was successfully followed by millions of smokers who wanted to quit, but Mr Carr found it impossible to explain how it works.

Doing the right thing so often is the result of behaviour that cannot be codified, even by an individual practitioner. How then can we devise institutional arrangements that will ensure, for example, that a catastrophic nuclear exchange will not take place, that we can avoid environmental calamity, or that children shall not die of malnutrition or malaria in their millions? I think it can be done, but only in retrospect. Allow experimentation, and in particular the termination of failed approaches, so that only the successes are widely applied. But for that to happen, we need to start with an array of diverse approaches.

So it's unfortunate that those the organizations to whom we look for solutions to our most important social and environmental problems are large enough to be immune from extinction if they fail: I refer to national governments and supra-national bodies such as the United Nations. Particularly when it comes to global challenges, they function as monopolies, insofar as they crowd out diverse approaches even if they do not actively stifle them.

Something like Easyway - successful, but impossible to codify - would never be considered by a government body. Tried, tested and failed approaches will always be preferred to something that by its success and its non-compliance with codified procedures threatens existing organizations' over-arching goal of self-perpetuation.

That's where Social Policy Bonds could help. Under a bond regime our existing monopolistic bodies - national governments - could still have roles to play: articulating society's concerns, and raising the revenue for their achievement. These are crucial roles, and the monopoly powers of government mean that only they can do them effectively. But under a bond regime the actual achievement of social and environmental goals would be contracted out to the private sector. Bondholders would have incentives to investigate and explore diverse approaches, and there would be no safety net for failures. Success in achieving social goals efficiently would be the sole criterion for a particular policy approach. In such a way could we bypass the stultifying barriers to successful new approaches imposed, consciously or not, by government, with its monopoly powers and insistence on codifiable, tested methods.

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