28 August 2011

Reason and prejudice

According to Hugo Mercier, we've been reasoning about reason all wrong. Reasoning is very good at what it probably evolved to let us do—argue in favor of what we believe and try to convince others that we're right. Did reason evolve for arguing?, 'Point of Inquiry', 15 August
According to this theory (elaborated in the POI podcast), the function of reasoning is argumentative. If I have understood it correctly it says that we use reasoning to convince others of our beliefs and prejudices. So "reasoning works well as an argumentative device, but quite poorly otherwise." If we accept this theory, what would it mean for policymaking and policymakers? In an age of extreme specialisation, making policy, or choosing amongst alternative policies, will often be done only by perhaps a single person, who will decide not according to reason and logic, but according to his or her unchallenged beliefs. In this respect, the theory is similar to the that of natural selection. The implication of both theories is that policymakers, even experts, should have some humility.

Both theories support my contention that policy approaches should be subordinated to outcomes. Politicians in democratic countries are good at articulating social goals, and good at raising the revenue necessary for their achievement. But they are not so good at working out how to achieve these goals. Even with a public administration degree, they still won’t be perfect. They subvert natural selection, by favouring top-down, one-size-fits-all approaches, which are not always appropriate, and by failing to terminate failed approaches. And, if we accept Dr Mercier's theory, they are also likely to favour approaches that accord with their own ideology and a priori beliefs, rather than those that can be supported by evidence.

This is where Social Policy Bonds could help. Many goals are not amenable to the top-down approach. But a bond regime would reward successful outcomes however they are achieved. Governments could set social and environmental goals, without having to think of how to achieve them. That would require some humility, of course, as well as politicians' relinquishing some of their power. For that reason and others it's probably more likely that non-governmental actors - NGOs or philanthropists, for instance - will be the first to issue Social Policy Bonds.

16 August 2011

Solitudinem faciunt...

Jean Bricmont and Diana Johnstone discuss the NATO intervention in Libya:
Despite the efforts of a few isolated individuals, there is no popular movement in Europe capable of stopping or even slowing the NATO onslaught. The only hope may be the collapse of the rebels, or opposition in the United States, or a decision by ruling oligarchies to cut the expenses. But meanwhile, the European left has missed its opportunity to come back to life by opposing one of the most blatantly inexcusable wars in history. Europe itself will suffer from this moral bankruptcy. Who Will Save Libya From Its Western Saviours?, 'Counterpunch', 16 August
There are no guarantees against this sort of madness, but western governments that are focused on bringing about the achievement of a few broad, well-defined, explicit social and environmental objectives would find it awkward to explain how taking sides in Libya could help their society's well-being...let alone that of any other society. It's clear that there's no internal mechanism to limit the scope of government, whether at home or overseas. Desperately needed is some discipline that would re-orientate government so that it concentrates on outcomes that are meaningful to ordinary people. The accumulation of sovereign debt in the developed countries is the most obvious and ominous symptom; but the pointless, destructive and barely opposed intervention in Libya is a particularly poignant example.

13 August 2011

It's obvious really

It's obvious that governments should spend within their means, shouldn't debase the currency, and shouldn't destroy the environment and social cohesion. But today's policymakers operate in a fog of obscurity and micromanagement. They are preoccupied with ideology, activities, institutional structures, spending plans, image and news management. In such an environment, it's too easy to lose sight of principles. Attention spans shorten; the focus shifts from the long term and crucial to the short term and flippant. Problems that can't manifest themselves as dramatic tv footage are neglected.

Expressing policy in terms of broad, desirable goals, as Social Policy Bonds do, could get us out of this predicament. We could issue bonds that become redeemable at the end of a sustained period of, for instance, world peace, fiscal continence, contained inflation and unemployment, and low levels of environmental destruction.

It's unlikely to happen. Governments just don't think like that. It's unfortunate that, at a time when governments are big, democratic and influential enough to articulate society's goals accurately and to raise the revenue to achieve these goals, they cannot relinquish their control over how these goals shall be achieved. Instead, they centralise more and more, as if power is an end in itself. Big government doesn't have to be remote, one-size-fits-all, rigid, error-prone and a threat to the well-being of mankind and every other species. But, because it fails to measure success in terms of explicit, meaningful outcomes, that's precisely what it has become.

03 August 2011

Who cares about policy?

Mick Hume writes that political life in the UK:
...becomes less about what you believe in or achieve, and more about how you appear, where you are seen and who you consort with. Personal image and style become all-important. That is why we find ourselves in a bizarre situation where a Tory prime minister can, on a given day, get more stick in the media for refusing to tip an Italian who did not deliver cappuccino to his table than for failing to deliver anything much in the way of a government programme. How British politics became trivial pursuits, Mick Hume, 3 August
Mr Hume talks about our celebrity political culture, which is partly a result of the lack of any ideological underpinnings to political parties. For me, though, ideology is at least as removed from society's well-being as celebrity. In either case, the interests of ordinary people are removed from the political agenda. Politicians are driven by ideology or by their wish to associate themselves with celebrities, either as an end in itself, or as a means of staying in power, or to distract the masses from matters of substance.

Ideology, celebrity, or the interests of the rich and powerful: in every case the drivers of our politics are not delivering meaningful outcomes to ordinary people. Social Policy Bonds, aside from their efficiency, could re-orientate politics entirely towards the achievement of social and environmental outcomes. Under a bond regime, politics would focus on the targeting of such outcomes, their relative priority and their cost. All actions set in train by such policymaking would be subordinated to the achievement of these outcomes. Ideology, celebrity and other nonsenses - currently absurdly important - would be seen, accurately, for what they are: self-indulgences.