03 November 2012

The unimportance of being right

From 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles Mann:
Provincial, county, and village officials [in present day China] are rewarded if they plant the number of trees envisioned in the plan, not whether they have chosen tree species suited to local conditions (or listened to scientists who say that trees are not appropriate for grasslands to begin with). Farmers who reap no direct benefit from their work—they are installing trees that do not produce fruit, cannot be cut for firewood, and supposedly stop erosion miles from their homes—have little incentive to take care of the trees they are forced to plant. The entirely predictable result is visible on the back roads of Shaanxi: fields of dead trees, each in its fish-scale pit, lining the roads for miles. “Every year we plant trees,” the farmers say, “but no trees survive.” (page 230, my emphasis)
It's not only in China. Everybody makes mistakes, but we have political systems that don't look back on obviously failed experiments and learn from them. Very often instead they pump more scarce resources into them, afraid of admitting to themselves and others that there's something wrong with their policymaking process. Perhaps the politicians and bureaucrats believe that the system in which they are so invested must not be seen to be faulty. It might, then, be questioned. Whatever the reason, the consequences are dire.

Social Policy Bonds would change that paradigm. They would reward successful, efficient ways of achieving society's social and environmental goals. They would stimulate diverse, adaptive approaches, in stark contrast to the uniformity that afflicts government programmes in the west as well as in China. Crucially, under a bond regime, failed experiments would be terminated: their proponents would have every incentive to administer the axe themselves, freeing up resources to investigate better approaches, with their sole guiding principle that of being more efficient in achieving society's targeted goal.

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