Making policy is very much like thinking, in that it’s limited by the way it abstracts from reality the finite range of facts available to it. For makers of policy whose remit covers more than a family, clan, tribe or village, this should be a lesson in humility, because policymaking for large numbers of people inevitably entails the use of quantifiable data. Such data are equivalent, at the level of the individual, to our thoughts. Either way, they are extremely limited; what our minds can grasp, articulate and work on do not describe reality. They are individual facts, selectively taken from memory or, when making policy, aggregated, quantifiable information. Unfortunately, as the saying has it, ‘if the only tool you’ve got is a hammer, you’re going to see every problem as a nail’. And the only policymaking tool we have is our intellect backed up, sometimes, by statistics, themselves often contentious.
the individual our thoughts have not (yet) completely crowded out our
insight. We know, most of us, at some level, that our well-being is not
defined by a set of discrete quantifiable circumstances, but is rather a
state of mind, which we’d find very difficult to describe using the
limited vocabulary of whatever language we speak.
though is in a more parlous state; at the national and super-national
levels anyway. For a start, it cannot interpret unprecedented threats,
such as climate change or nuclear proliferation, in any but its own
terms: that is, things to be negotiated, dealt with through the
political process by existing institutional structures or new ones
modelled on them. It cannot see social well-being as anything other than
aggregated targets, with maximum Gross Domestic Product (or GDP per
capita) as the target above all others. But GDP is grotesquely flawed
for that purpose, and most other numerical goals are hardly more
reliable indicators of social welfare. There are quantifiable
measures that do correlate fairly strongly with meaningful social
goals, but these tend to be at the lower levels of wealth, income,
nutrition or education. At these levels, quantifiable increases do generate real, meaningful rises in opportunity and welfare.
government has expanded far beyond helping the disadvantaged. It’s
expanded into areas where its reliance on aggregated data is not only
leading it awry, but into activities that crowd out the more adaptive,
responsive and responsible instincts of real people. At the same time,
the planet is confronted with challenges, such as climate change and
nuclear proliferation, that government cannot meet. Most of the
population is now so used to handing over responsibility to a large and
remote public sector that we think that government will solve such
problems. Or we think that if government cannot solve them, they cannot
be solved. The remarkable ability of humans to adapt and survive, our
prodigious energy and ingenuity, is stunted, or channelled into
cynicism, despair or such flippant, but lucrative, pursuits such as the
marketing of dog food, where the goals are immediate, identifiable and
no threat to the existing order.
is a widening gap between government and the people it’s supposed to
represent. It wouldn’t matter very much of the public sector were small,
and satisfied to remain so, and if real people controlled their own
destiny. But the public sector is none of those things. It’s big, remote
and intrusive, and it’s failing to meet our most urgent challenges.
This combination could mean calamity, not just for millions, or hundreds
of millions of human beings, but for the entire planet.
Social Policy Bonds could help close the ever widening gap between politicians and people. By targeting social and environmental goals, rather than the supposed means of achieving them, they could bring ordinary people into the policymaking process. Ends are meaningful; means are not, especially when they are (deliberately?) obscured by complex, arcane and protracted policymaking processes. By focusing on ends we should be clarifying exactly what we want to achieves. But perhaps more important than clarity and even their advantages of greater efficiency, transparency and policy stability over time, Social Policy Bonds would generate buy-in. By participating in making policy, people would be more readily accepting of the trade-offs that are inescapable when choosing which social and environmental goals should have priority.