14 May 2010

Voting for outcomes rather than slogans

Discussing Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, the Economist says:
His fans salute him as a saviour for the downtrodden of the planet.... But to many others...he has come to embody a new, post-cold-war model of authoritarian rule which combines a democratic mandate, populist socialism and anti-Americanism, as well as resource nationalism and carefully calibrated repression. This model has proved surprisingly successful across the world. Versions are to be found in countries as disparate and distinct as Iran, Russia, Zimbabwe and Sudan. In one way or another, these regimes claim to have created a viable alternative to liberal democracy. The wrecking of Venezuela (subscription), 'the Economist', 13 May
What I take from this is that democracy, as currently practised, no longer means buy-in. People vote for a party, a party leader, or for a collection of policies or attitudes. We are very rarely given the chance to vote for a single policy. We vote, indirectly, for people or parties that may or may not deliver certain collections of outcomes. There is so little correlation between a party's manifesto and those outcomes that, inevitably, other factors come into play, of which image, slogans, poses and rhetoric are prominent. This sort of politics has all sorts of disadvantages, of which one is that it tends not to be practised by people with integrity, with results that the Economist, rightly, laments. The politicians play off one group of people, or special interests, against another. They have little interest in maintaining social cohesion. The consequences are likely to be destructive or even tragic.

Rather than emphasise party and personality, as do current democratic systems, we could consider focusing on outcomes. We face urgent social and environmental challenges that need buy-in and cohesion, which the current system is not delivering. Social Policy Bonds could help in this. We could target outcomes that, when not advocated by polarising figures, most people would agree with: the avoidance of nuclear catastrophe, or any major disaster, for example; or the attainment of universal literacy. (For more examples see here.) Even people who disagree with such goals are less likely to oppose them when the process for targeting them is more robust and direct than under the current system.

For all sorts for reasons (see my book) Social Policy Bonds would be more cost-effective than the current system. But in focusing attention on outcomes rather than party or personality, they would also, I believe, generate more buy-in to the entire policymaking process. Social cohesion could only benefit.

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