18 December 2010

Government doesn't do diversity

Discussing some of the perils of the internet, Nicholas Carr mentions Frederick Taylor's system of scientific management. It brings great efficiency advantages to manufacturing, but took away the employee's need to:
'make his own decisions about how he did his work. ... After Taylor, the laborer began following a script written by someone else. ... The messiness that comes with individual autonomy was cleaned up, and the factory as a whole became more efficient, its output more predictable. Industry prospered. What was lot along with the messiness was personal initiative, creativity, and whim. Conscious craft turned into unconscious routine. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows (page 218)
The trade-off probably works in society's favour when the productivity gains are sufficiently great, and when employees have other outlets for their creativity. Where society stands to lose, though, is when ostensibly scientific scripts are applied inappropriately, and when there is no possibility of their being superseded either by better scripts, or adaptive behaviour. I think this applies to much of current policymaking, where we commonly see approaches that have been tried, tested and found to be inefficient or useless being applied again and again to social and environmental problems.

This need not be a total disaster, so long as there remains in the policy arena some approximation of the 'creative destruction' that characterises perfectly competitive markets. But, sadly, that condition applies less and less to our more serious global or national problems. Government wants to apply its monopolistic approach not only to those areas, such as provision of public services, where that can work well, but also to challenges, like climate change, that urgently demand diverse, adaptive approaches. Government at all levels increasingly takes away our autonomy and writes the script on our behalf. This tendency is partly a fear of litigation where, so long as you can prove that you've ticked all the boxes, you are covered. But it's also simple inertia, whereby government agencies react rationally to the incentives to enlarge their powers.

One remedy might be Social Policy Bonds, whereby government can still set targets and raise the revenue necessary to achieve them. But it can disengage from actually achieving them and from stipulating how they shall be achieved. For complex problems, where our current knowledge is scanty, and where a mosaic of different approaches is going to be necessary, we need to encourage 'creative destruction': that is, experimentation, with the termination of failed trials. We need, in short, diverse, adaptive approaches, of the sort that government (or any single, large organisation) cannot take. A bond regime, where highly motivated investors would always be on the lookout for better ways of doing things, could be the way forward.

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