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.

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