26 July 2013

Procedures or outcomes?

Freddie de Boer, in a review of Jaron Lanier's Who owns the future? writes about the United States (and other countries), which he calls 'proceduralist':
 A proceduralist views society not in terms of a necessary goal (say, happiness and opportunity for all its members) but instead as a set of rules that it must follow—because they are natural, because they stem from the Western tradition, because they comport with human behavior, because they follow God’s law, depending on whoever is justifying the current procedure. If these rules are followed, no injustice needs to be redressed. Rules can be discarded or changed if their intent is found to be problematic, but outcomes can be good or bad without issue. Problems arise only if the rules are broken. ...
But what happens when established procedures lead to unsustainable or immoral consequences, such as widespread and persistent unemployment? The [US] employment crisis reveals a conflict between the procedures of democratic capitalism, which ensure certain rights but promise nothing else, and the logic of the American social contract, which justifies the social order by assuring citizens that they can trade work for material security.
Talk of social contracts is passé in an America obsessed with technocapitalist visions of a prosperous future. ... This has led to an embrace of proceduralism by those true believers who want an app economy to be the engine of capitalism. And such people rule the world.
The problem for proceduralists is that social contracts exist for a reason. It turns out that there are, actually, certain outcomes that society must ensure if it is to go on functioning.
Exactly so; and for many of us, society is becoming less efficient at ensuring these outcomes. The negative impacts of corporate activities have become larger or less equitably distributed; a larger proportion of the benefits is accruing to a tiny, powerful and self-entrenching elite. Real median salaries aren't increasing by much, relative to the costs of a middle class life. One way of dealing with this might be a negative income tax: a payment to every citizen regardless of their employment status (here is a UK proposal). That might help mitigate the worst impacts of unemployment but the sums don't look encouraging.

A second way, of course, would be a Social Policy Bond regime. This would give priority to outcomes, rather than procedures, and it is those outcomes that would underlie a new social contract. They would be agreed, explicit outcomes that are meaningful to ordinary people: ends in themselves rather than the means to ends on which policymakers currently focus. In comparison to a bond regime, proceduralism is too random and its failures too big and fast-moving for government bureaucracies to do much about. Social Policy Bonds would subordinate all social spending, and much corporate activity, to welfare-enhancing goals. Policy, indeed, as if outcomes for real human beings, mattered.

No comments: