27 June 2016

Good policy is not about choosing a team

Michael Tomasky quotes Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels:
We conclude that group and partisan loyalties, not policy preferences or ideologies, are fundamental in democratic politics. Thus, a realistic theory of democracy must be built, not on the French Enlightenment, on British liberalism, or on American Progressivism, with their devotion to human rationality and monadic individualism, but instead on the insights of the critics of these traditions, who recognized that human life is group life.... For most people, partisanship is not a carrier of ideology but a reflection of judgments about where “people like me” belong. Can the monster be elected?, Michael Tomasky, 'New York Review of Books', dated 14 July
There are likely or possible explanations for this. One, perhaps, is that a country - still less a group of countries - is just too large a body of people with which we can identify. But more important is how this insight links with policymaking, and how it can be, and is, manipulated by those seeking power. So, for instance, it's regarded as 'compassionate' to approve of Angela Merkel's impulsive decision to welcome unlimited numbers of migrants from the third world. And the impulse truly was a compassionate one. Who would want to identify with the (relatively) hard-hearted approach of Australia towards boatloads of refugees and migrants? Or the (absolutely) hard-hearted approach of Saudi Arabia? People understand compassion and we all want to think ourselves compassionate.

It makes for disastrous policy. Migrants drowning in record numbers in the Mediterranean. People in Europe feeling let down by their elected representatives, generating widespread alienation and anger, more support for extremist parties, the erosion of free speech, British exit from the European Union and record gun sales throughout Europe.

It points to the irrelevance of outcomes as a determinant of policy in today's democracies. Bonding with 'people like me', signalling virtue and 'compassion', mutual back-patting: these are how we choose which policies and parties to back. I don't think there's anything particularly wrong or reprehensible with this - except that it leads to calamitous results, as we are seeing. Policymakers should hold themselves to a higher standard: instead of being compassionate, or acting compassionately, or allying themselves with the 'compassionate' side of an argument, they should be making decisions with a view to their likely outcomes.

Unfortunately, our system doesn't target outcomes and, especially, it does not target long-term outcomes. Politicians win points by seeming compassionate and human and empathic, regardless of the long-term results of their policies. Or by identifying themselves as being in opposition to 'compassion', unity, tolerance and all the other labels the other team likes to apply to itself.

The losers from all this are ordinary people including, especially and most tragically now, those thousands of Africans risking their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean.

Social Policy Bonds are a way of closing the gap between ordinary people and the politicians and bureaucrats who make the policy that determines how we live. Under a bond regime we could target long-term goals; goals that would not be swayed by striking televisual imagery, rhetoric, impulse or reaction. Ordinary people would help choose these goals and their relative priority far more readily than they can engage in policymaking in today's world. Crucially, policy goals - as distinct from the ways we achieve them - would be stable over time, and not subject to the whims and caprices of the 'people like us'.

Social Policy Bonds will never be seen as 'compassionate'. They channel people's self-interest into solving social problems. (I titled an early version of my book Give greed a chance.) People make money by achieving social goals, and if they're efficient, they make more money. That is anathema to the 'compassion' lobby, who are more interested in picking a team, banging a tambourine and advertising their virtue than actually finding the best ways of helping the most people. I would think, though, that the people we are trying to help - the poor, the disadvantaged, those who are illiterate after years of schooling, those whose lives are devastated by war - are more interested in outcomes than motives. I certainly am.

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