23 January 2014

Arguments on both sides

There are two things you can always say if having dosed off in a meeting at work and you're nudged awake to find people staring at you, waiting for your contribution. One is "it's not black or white, it's a continuum". The other is "there are arguments on both sides".

Reading about subjects like low-carb diets, or medications intended to treat psychiatric conditions of, of course, climate change, I'm struck not so much by the controversies and seemingly valid arguments on both sides of fundamental questions, but by the absence of systems that would impartially encourage accurate, definitive resolution of the fundamental problems. So much about the way we deal with major challenges is now about defending positions, rather than looking for truth. One would hope that the arc of history combined with Darwinian processes would tend toward the settling of arguments as to whether, say, low-carb diets are helpful or harmful. We often assume that something like the scientific paradigm will inevitably resolve these issues. Perhaps it will, but there are problems with this. First, that the defending of entrenched, but harmful, wrong positions adds to the sum of human misery, perhaps on a large scale over a long time. Second, that we may reach tipping points, beyond which even if the right side eventually wins the argument against entrenched opposition, it's too late or costly to change the rate at which the damage is being done.

If there is significant wealth or status - individual or collective - or control at stake, we can be sure that there will be people virulently defending at least two sides of a policy discussion. Sometimes these sides and their biases are easy to identify: big pharma, big oil. Sometimes not: government agencies, non-governmental organizations of every sort. In many instances these bodies will genuinely believe in their case, in others, they won't.

But it doesn't really matter. The point is that, for many policy decisions, the stakes for society are too high for the debate to be determined by interest groups or ideologues, and their paid mouthpieces.We need some way of making policy that is independent of vested interests.

That's where focusing on outcomes - rather than supposed means of achieving them - becomes important. Under a Social Policy Bond regime, policymakers wouldn't start out weighing the arguments for, or against, say, doing something about climate change or whether people should eat more fat and less sugar. They would instead determine which broad outcomes we want to see. And these outcomes would be goals that are meaningful to ordinary citizens, who could therefore participate in the policymaking process. It would be up to bondholders to work out whether the supposed means of achieving society's goals entail favouring one interest group or another, or neither. Their motivation would be to achieve society's targeted goal at minimum cost and as quickly as possible. The most efficient bondholders will be rewarded the most, and it is they, acting in their own self-interest to establish as best they can, impartially, the actual scientific relationships that will advance them most cost-effectively on the road to maximising not only their own profits, but also society's well-being. Impartiality and truth-seeking, motivation and efficiency: these are all built into the very structure of a Social Policy Bond regime.

Unfortunately, the lack of uptake of the Social Policy Bond principle, after it has been in the public arena for 25 years, could be interpreted as a symptom of the same problem: the power of vested interests to resist anything that could threaten their position.

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