08 January 2010

Systems or results?

Reading Infinite Potential, the biography of David Bohm by F David Peat, one is struck by the overwhelming wish of great physicists to unify and systematise; to generalise from past data or past experience; to abstract principles that can apply to new situations. We probably all have this tendency, which has served us very well, for the most part. But in great scientists it seems to be all consuming and, perhaps inevitably, to lead to grief. Reality is just too complicated.

Policymakers in our increasingly large and complex societies are ever more remote from ordinary people. So they rely more and more on the advice of experts, all of whom are trained to abstract general principles and relationships from history and datasets. It's a never-ending, never-complete task of course but it's an approach that yields useful insights and has led to the development of unambiguously good policies. Unfortunately, though, many of our most urgent policy goals are just not amenable any longer to that approach. We are increasingly interlinked; relationships between cause and effect are ever more tangled; and society is changing so fast that there is very little precedent for solving some of our most challenging social and environmental problems.

But our policymaking system doesn't recognise this. As a result, it's both too limited and, perversely, too ambitious. Too ambitious, as, for instance, when it tries to tackle climate change by identifying one variable that it can control (or say it's trying to control) - greenhouse gas emissions - and assuming that that will be enough. Too limited, in that it fails to deal with problems, such as war, that it recognises it has no hope of solving with the current array of policy instruments.

Our policymakers are perhaps more interested in control than in results. They want not so much to see problems solved, but rather to identify organising principles and approaches that they can use to solve our problems. Implementing Social Policy Bonds would mean that politicians would have to relinquish some of their power and to subordinate their wish to identify and control policy levers (even if there aren't any) to the achievement of results. It would mean a massive psychological shift. But the rewards are potentially huge.

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