19 August 2018

One size never fits all

Much of the world's strife originates in the emotional insecurities of the people in power. Piling up weaponry, seeing hostility when it's not there, stamping out any quibbles and dissent about the way things are done: these are not admirable traits, but they are widespread and destructive. Perhaps only the most psychologically secure leaders can allow a mixed economy with a healthy business sector to flourish, or question the accepted ways of doing things: the ways that created the hierarchy that gives them the power they enjoy.

A revealing joke in Beijing elite circles describes how Deng Xiaoping, father of the past 40 years of reform and economic opening, assembled two teams, one comprising the country’s best technocrats, and the other China’s most ingenious Marxist theoreticians. Deng asked the first team what policies the economy needed, and commanded the second team to define those policies as socialist. Reform-minded elites fear Mr Xi has reversed that process. How to read summer grumbles about China’s swaggering leader, the 'Economist', 11 August
Deng was pragmatic, and his reforms remarkable, and they helped lift hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. The current regime seems to be less secure:
[L]ocal experiments with reform have been cited by some Western scholars as examples of China’s “adaptive authoritarianism”. This is a way of describing the party’s ability to avoid the fate of its counterparts in other communist-ruled countries by flexibly adjusting policy in order to satisfy public demands for greater prosperity. The pilot system has been an important means of achieving this. There are signs, however, that it is losing steam. Local experiments with reform are becoming rarer under Xi Jinping, the 'Economist', 18 August
If this is accurate, then I think it's unfortunate. Society is so complex and our social and physical environments are changing so quickly, that old ways of doing things need to be questioned. One approach will rarely work effectively over a wide geographical area, or for extended periods of time. Unfortunately, people in the grip of an ideology - who may, indeed, owe their livelihoods or lives to their belief in an ideology - rarely consider approaches that conflict with their conditioning.

I'm all for ritual, belief and ideology when practised by consenting adults. Less so, when they dicatate policy that denies our diversity and humanity. How often do we speak with good, well-meaning people who are committed to a particular political party, or who identify themselves with a particular political grouping? Then you come across their blind spot, where application of their ideology led to undeniably unfortunate results…but they can’t see that. We probably all have such blind spots. The richness and complexity of history, and the application of selective memory mean that most of us can plausibly attribute all the bad things that happen to the beliefs, politicians, countries or cultures that we don’t like, and all the good things to the successes of the ideology that we favour.

It won't work any longer, if it ever did. In an increasingly complex world, relationships between policy programmes and their outcomes are ever more difficult to identify and the consequences of failure ever more disastrous. Our lazy tendency to impose a binary worldview on such potential crises as climate change, ownership and control of resources could prove disastrous. It would be a tragedy if the excerpt above, about China's stifling of experimental approaches is accurate. The Chinese people in particular have seen where a top-down, monolithic approach leads.

It’s time to quit looking for an all-embracing ideology that tells us whom we can rely on, or how best to approach every political, social or environmental problem. We must accept that cannot rely on any god, religion, political approach or economic belief system - not when it comes to policymaking that affects people. We need diverse, adaptive approaches that transcend ideology.

My suggestion is that instead we subordinate policy to outcomes. It’s much easier to get consensus on what we as a society want to achieve than on the ways to achieve it or on who shall be paid for achieving it. Social Policy Bonds would allow this: governments would still get to raise revenue for achieving our social and environmental goals and still articulate society's goals. But under a bond regime they would relinquish control over how our goals shall be achieved and who shall achieve them. In this way, they could target long-term problems whose solutions have so far eluded us and for which there is no obvious single pathway. National problems such as poor health, crime, unemployment. And global problems such war, climate change, or nuclear catastrophe.

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