15 November 2009

The policy monoculture

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reports on the subsidies, worth US$285 billion, given to OECD farmers in 2008:
Support is becoming increasingly conditioned by requirements on producers to follow certain production practices in pursuit of broader objectives, such as preservation of the environment, animal welfare or food safety. Payments involving the fulfilment of such requirements comprised 4% of [subsidies to farmers] in 1986-88, a share which had increased to 32% by 2006-08.... Agricultural Policies in OECD Countries 2009: Monitoring and Evaluation, summary (pdf)
As in agriculture, so in every other policy area: government assistance becomes conditional on doing things the way government wants you to. There are important considerations of freedom here, especially when government is becoming ever more involved in every aspect of social and economic organisation. But I am also concerned about the efficiency and risk management aspects of this sort of process-driven micro-management. They can be summarised briefly:
  • Government does not always know the best ways of achieving social and environmental outcomes; when it gets it wrong it does so on a big, and possibly catastrophic scale;

  • The ways government chooses are likely to be fossilised in time, and incapable of taking into account local circumstances; government intervention will discourage adaptive, diverse approaches, experimentation and the termination of failed approaches.

  • Government's edicts are also likely to be heavily influenced by considerations other than efficiency, such as the interests of large corporations.
I write at greater length on this causes and consequences of this policy monoculture in my book - see the links in the right-hand column.

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