06 June 2017

Self-entrenching atomisation

In a discussion about air travel, Steve Randy Waldman makes an interesting point:
Aggregate outcomes are not in general or even usually interpretable as an aggregation of individual preferences. When we learn about the Prisoners’ Dilemma, we don’t interpret the fact that both players rat as evidence that, really, they both just wanted to go to jail for a long time. After all, that is their revealed preference, right? No. We understand that the arrangement that would obtain if they could cooperatively regulate one another’s behavior is in fact the outcome that they would prefer. As isolated individuals, they simply have no capacity to express this preference. Source See also Prisoner's Dilemma
This explanation of the mismatch between the sum of individual preferences, and aggregate decisions makes a lot of sense, and we can see its implications beyond the air travel industry in the deficiencies of our policymaking system. (I'm not, incidentally, convinced by the rest of Mr Waldman's discussion of the air travel industry.) To my mind, it points to the need for more public engagement with policy; more discussion amongst ordinary people about the costs and benefits of policy alternatives. But policy itself is not really the issue: policy is a means to various ends, and those ends under our current system are rarely articulated, often  deliberately obscured, and often in conflict with each other and with the interests of anybody except those bodies wealthy enough to follow and influence them. We don't  "cooperatively regulate one another's behaviour" in the policymaking process, because that process is just too esoteric and time-consuming for ordinary people to follow.

The result is that our politics is ceded to powerful bodies, public- and private-sector, which benefit by ordinary people's unwillingness or inability to follow the policymaking process. A self-entrenching mechanism seems to be at work: certain policies weaken social and family bonds. I'd include amongst these policies that deal with welfare payments, subsidies to (for instance) road transport and capital-intensive agriculture, zoning laws, regulations that favour big business, and trade agreements. Importantly, the positive effects of these policies might well outweigh the negative, but the negative effects do tend to divide us. And, as atomised individuals or nuclear families, we exhibit exactly the behaviour that Mr Walden talks about: we cannot translate our wishes through a broken policymaking system, into 'an aggregation of individual preferences'. This cycle perpetuates itself.

Social Policy Bonds could help. They would refocus policy discussion onto outcomes that are meaningful to ordinary people. Goals, in short, that we could understand and debate. Under a bond regime anyone could engage with the policymaking process and, crucially, with each other, over policy goals and priorities. Even if our individual wishes were over-ruled, we'd have the satisfaction of knowing we'd been consulted. One result of this would be more buy-in: a crucial feature missing from politics these days. Another would be the solution to the problem to which Mr Waldman alludes: our individual preferences could be aggregated in a meaningful way. For example: few of us would want to see, say, a conflict anywhere in the world that led to the detonation of a nuclear device. Or, at the national level, most of us would like to see universal literacy and reductions in the level of violent crime. Currently, we have no way of articulating and debating these preferences in a systematic way: we can vote for political parties that may or may not offer different perspectives; we can join single-issue groups (which tend to deviate from their initial remit), and there are various other ad hoc activities we can undertake in support of some, but not all, of our individual goals. But they're unsystematic, often incoherent, and rarely exposed to moderating or contrary argument. And a large number of interest groups anyway replicates almost exactly the mismatch discussed above.

In contrast, a Social Policy Bond regime would enable us meaningfully to express goals that our current system finds difficult to target: goals like the avoidance of a nuclear conflict. The bonds could do this effectively because they would not presuppose how our goals shall be achieved, nor who shall achieve them. By focusing entirely on outcomes and costs, Social Policy Bonds would translate and modify our individual preferences into coherent, consensual policy goals. An invaluable by-product of a bond regime would be its reversal of the atomisation process afflicting western democracies.

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