31 January 2011

Different or divergent?

The protests in Tunisia and Egypt are not difficult to explain. Rising aspirations are colliding with the inability and unwillingness of governments to meet them. The interests of the politicians and the other pillars of the establishment (the police, the military) are not different from those of their people but, increasingly, in conflict with them. And there's no mechanism, other than by revolution, by which the widening gap can be closed. So it's not just that people's expectations aren't being met under the current regime; it's that the regime is systemically incapable of aligning itself with those expectations.

It's not that different in the rich countries. Our policymaking is in thrall to special interests; mainly big corporations, trade unions, wealthy individuals, and their lobbyists. Policies that turn out to be counterproductive (to put it mildly) are not just implemented, which would be excusable, but they persist. So we see agribusiness corporations and wealthy landowners in Europe and the US subsidised by taxes on the poor to the tune of billions of dollars annually: not just for a short time during which there is a transition to saner policies, but for decades. Our collective response to the unsustainability of ludicrous policies has been to borrow more money to keep them going; to prop up a corrupt system, at all costs to everyone and everything except the special interests. The special interests are the only winners. The losers are ordinary people, our social environment, and our physical environment.

It doesn't have to be like this. Instead of the special interests dictating policy we could find a way of orienting our politics to society's interests rather than those of the powerful. This is where outcome-based policy in general should play a role. Social Policy Bonds are one way by which all government activity and funding would be subordinated to the greater good. Under a Social Policy Bond regime, government would do what it's good at: articulating society's goals, and raising the revenue for their achievement. These goals would be expressed not, as today, in terms of vague, high-sounding but unverifiable ideals, but in terms of quantifiable outcomes, whose achievement would be inextricably bound to improvements in social and environmental well-being. So, rather than target 'economic growth', say, or GDP per capita, we'd be targeting things like universal literacy, or reduced crime rates, or a cleaner environment. We'd target ends, rather than the supposed means of achieving these ends.

No longer would policy, despite the best intentions of the hard-working people in our government agencies, drift away from the the concerns of ordinary people and align itself with those of large corporations and other special interest groups. Policymaking under a Social Policy Bond regime would be entirely subordinated to society's wishes. Rewards would benefit only those who help make such wishes a reality. Only when the interests of government and people are aligned can we be sure of avoiding north-Africa-style turmoil and social collapse.

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