06 November 2010

Why wait centuries?

The late Tony Judt, historian, in an interview published in The Nation, 17 May:
Democracy has always been a problem. The truly attractive features of the Western tradition that we accidentally - and it really is accidentally - get the benefit of are the rule of law, liberalism and tolerance, all of which are virtues inherited from predemocratic societies, whether they were based in eighteenth-century Anglo-American aristocratic individualism or nineteenth-century European forms of a type of developed postfeudal legal state.
Indeed, the accidental effects of human actions can be beneficial as well as disastrous. Adam Smith's Invisible Hand generates material benefits, as does government planning. But they also create social and environmental problems, and only partly because of market failure. In my view, the world is too small now for the solution of social and environmental problems to be left to chance. And, once we have achieved, however haphazardly, virtues such as the rule of law, liberalism and tolerance, and once we see recognise their importance, we can consciously set out to maintain them.

This is what Social Policy Bonds could do. One of the great advantages of the bond approach is that we can encourage people to achieve social goals without anyone knowing in advance how they will do so. Issuers of 'Rule of law' Bonds could target the achievement of rule of law, in societies that currently don't have it; and its continuance in societies that do. The accidental achievement of rule of law (and liberalism and tolerance) in the societies that have it took centuries of conflict and bloodshed. We cannot know how best to achieve these virtues in remote, complex societies, nor how to sustain them in more fortunate societies. But we can offer incentives for people to do so. Yes, defining what we mean by 'rule of law' poses difficulties. But the alternative, waiting for societies to achieve it accidentally is unlikely to be any easier.

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