29 July 2009

Conflict Reduction Bonds

I've just begun reading Breaking down the wall of silence, by Alice Miller. From the preface:
What makes a person wish to destroy the world? ... [T]echnology alone is not sufficient to protect us from the consequences of denied, and thus uncontrolled, emotions. Without facing up to their origins - the production of hatred in childhood - we will be unable to resolve such hated and put an end to the work of devastation. It is in no way exaggerated to say that every tyrant, without exception, prefers to see thousands and even millions of people killed and tortured rather than undo the repression of his childhood mistreatment and humiliation, to feel his rage and helplessness in the face of his parents, to call them to account and condemn their actions.
This sounds plausible to me. The problem, from the point of view of policymakers, is that the evidence for or against it is too scanty right now to provide a firm basis for policy. Our national political systems are geared to deterring or fighting wars, rather than their looking for their psychological causes. Our global political systems are geared to intervening in existing conflicts or interposing themselves between likely antagonists. Investigating the psychological causes of war is too speculative and long term for government bodies. Government, including global bodies like the United Nations, are good at dealing with, say, disease outbreaks or natural disasters. There, the causes are by and large known, the actions to take are specific, monitoring of progress is easy. Indeed, only large organisations like government can effectively deal with such emergencies. Where such organisations fail, though, is when the relationship between cause and effect is not so simple to identify. The tendency then is to allocate resources according to factors other than long-term effectiveness and efficiency.

Prevention of violent political conflict may well require a mosaic of approaches, including those currently followed by the United Nations. But if Ms Miller is correct, then the huge disparity between the resources given to current prevention methods as against investigation of psychological causes would be especially grievous. When faced with something as apparently intractable as war, the right approach, I believe, is to specify a desirable outcome - some robust definition of 'peace' in this example - and reward people for achieving it, however they do so. We can't know in advance whether looking at children's treatment in the family will reduce the level of conflict, but we can take steps to encourage investigators inspired by Ms Miller to pursue their enquiry if it shows signs of promise. Conflict Reduction Bonds, issued with the goal of reducing violent political conflict to a very low level, would channel resources impartially into the most promising lines of enquiry, however obscure or unfashionable they might now appear.

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