18 December 2013

Transcending institutional decay

I won't discuss Professor Francis Fukuyama's long piece on The decay of American political institutions in detail. I think that the problem he discusses - the divergence of politicians from the electorate - applies to most of the western democracies, though the specific causes differ. The essay does confirm to me that any policymaking that does not reward explicit, verifiable outcomes, is doomed to fail. Even if the proponents of a policy are well-meaning, programmes that focus on institutions, structures, activities, inputs or outputs will inevitably be gamed or manipulated, especially at the national (or supra-national) level.

So, when it comes to bribery and corruption: 

The law bans only the market transaction, not the exchange of favors. The latter is what the American lobbying industry is built around. ...
The Decay of American Political Institutions,
Exchange of favours is only one of the myriad ways in which political institutions decay, but it is representative. 
Pluralist theory holds that the aggregation of all these groups contending with one another constitutes a democratic public interest. But due [sic] to the intrinsic over-representation of narrow interests, they are instead more likely to undermine the possibility that representative democracy will express a true public interest. 
'[T]hey' here refers to the US public sector trade unions, but it could stand for any interest group. 
There is a further problem with interest groups and the pluralist view that sees public interest as nothing more than the aggregation of individual private interests: It undermines the possibility of deliberation and ignores the ways in which individual preferences are shaped by dialogue and communication.
Quite so. It also crowds out the likelihood that people will think beyond their identity as members of their group. Perhaps more seriously, it also takes existing ways of doing things as a given, which is almost a definition of decay.

The answer? I think we need to re-orientate policy debate around outcomes; broad, meaningful outcomes that will engage ordinary people in the shaping of individual preferences 'by dialogue and communication'. Arcane legalistic discussion about structures and funding excludes people who aren't lawyers, politicians, lobbyists or academics, but that is the system we have today. If we could instead talk about outcomes - such as universal literacy, or reduced crime rates, or better health - then we could do so in debates that people can understand and in which we can participate.

Social Policy Bonds would allow the targeting of broad outcomes, whose achievement would transcend, in both time and purview, the compass of existing institutions and interest groups. Current ways of addressing war, or 'defence', say, focus almost exclusively on military spending or on treaties and coalition-building that do little to discourage war itself. Our current system doesn't supply meaningful incentives to create a world in which violent political conflict comes to an end. 

That is where a Social Policy Bond regime could enter the picture. For more, see this short article, or this longer one, both on the SocialGoals.com website.

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