19 November 2013

The great divergence, continued

It's not just that our western democratic governments stand apart from ordinary citizens, but that the gap grows every larger. Jim Newell writes about a US Senator, Jim DeMint, who is retiring to head up a think tank:

The whole curious DeMint affair bespeaks the ongoing shift of power in Washington away from the people’s business—and toward the ideological donor class....  At places like CAP, AEI, Heritage, and many of the other approximately 1,812 American think tanks, policy studies are still part of the operation, but their most vital public role is to act as partisan hacks for whichever side of the major-party duopoly they’re associated with. And the conservative think tanks are now reliable dispensers of ideological discipline on the right: they do exactly what is best in the short term for the Republican Party at all times and punish anyone who dissents. Good Enough for Government: WorkConservatism in the tank, Jim Newell, 'The Baffler', No. 23
Perhaps this sort of patronage-based corruption is built into any sort of policymaking system with which ordinary people cannot identify, whether that happens because government is too big, too remote, or its machinations too obscure. A government acting on a large scale need not necessarily be remote from or unconcerned with the well-being of its citizens. There are essential projects that require such a government: sanitation for example, or other major infrastructural works. But it does seem to be inevitable that interest groups, including big business and government agencies, interpose themselves between people and their government taking advantage of public funds in ways that are damaging to the public interest, self-enriching and therefore - because money buys votes - self-entrenching. Once that happens, elections become ever less meaningful; ordinary people become alienated from the political process and cynical.  Or worse.

One way of reconnecting people with the policymaking process might be direct democracy; frequent referenda along Swiss lines. Another might be to become familiar with expressing all policy goals in terms of outcomes that are meaningful to ordinary people, and to reward achievement of these outcomes, whoever achieves them and only once they have been achieved and sustained. By doing this, we could avoid today's corrupt favouritism of corporations or government bodies and de-emphasise the roles of political parties and their supporting donors and ideologues. Worthy though these aims might be in themselves, an outcome-based regime would, more positively, stimulate diverse, adaptive solutions to our urgent and large-scale social and environmental problems.

That's where Social Policy Bonds could enter the picture. They offer a way of achieving outcomes that rewards efficiency in achieving social goals above all other considerations. They inject market incentives into the solution of our social problems, impartially, with cost-effectiveness being the sole criterion for one approach being rewarded rather than another. A bond regime, because it would be efficient at achieveing social goals, and because its aims and means would be comprehensible to people other than politicians, bureaucrats, corporate lobbyists and think tank ideologues, could close the ever-widening gap between citizens and their government.

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