12 May 2021

Winning elections is not the same as running the country

Henry Kissinger is supposed to have said: 

One of the greatest dangers to democracy is the growing gap between those who can win elections and those who can run the state.

Quite so. I think there's also a growing gap between those who can win elections and those who wish to run the state, or have any interest in running the state efficiently. There are many reasons why people seek power, but running an efficient state doesn't seem to be an over-riding one. Power for its own sake, something that will bring future lucrative directorships or media appearances or promote sales of memoirs, or something to fill in those endless blank days after some other career- these seem to be more important as motivators for would-be politicians. 

Part of the reason for this is that running a state is less fulfilling than it used to be. Our democratic societies are too complex for a single person's influence to count for much. There are always competing interest groups to consider and long time lags between cause and effect. So politics is increasingly driven by personalities, sound bites, and trivia. At the same time we are failing to address huge, urgent social and environmental challenges. Politicians and bureaucrats have little incentive to tackle these challenges until they become emergencies. Structural weaknesses are papered over until it's too late. It makes little difference who's in power, and ordinary people know that.

Here's another idea: instead of voting for political party, or for the politician who looks best in the media, or for the ones that avoid real issues in the most convincing manner, how about letting us vote for outcomes? Not for the politicians who say they'll deliver outcomes, or for the political party that, way back in history, did once deliver outcomes, but directly for outcomes. Take, for instance, the goal of avoiding catastrophic climate change. That option was not offered by any of the British political parties. It's not on offer, in fact, anywhere, as a policy for which people can vote. What is on offer are promises made by members of a political caste to do something that might do something to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn might, but probably will not, do anything significantly to stabilise the climate. Then these promises, however nugatory, are broken anyway.

That's where Social Policy Bonds can play a part. Under a bond regime, the currency of debate would be outcomes rather than political parties or well-meaning but hollow promises. Politicians then wouldn't have to run the state, though they would have to articulate society's targeted outcomes, and continue to raise the revenue for their achievement. Politicians can actually do those things quite well - in the democratic countries at least. Outcomes are inherently more amenable to the sort of consensus and buy-in that are essential if we are to avoid serious economic, social or environmental problems. And Social Policy Bonds, as well as increasing transparency and stability of targeted goals, would minimise the cost of achieving them. More could be done with society's scarce resources than under the current system. Efficiency, transparency and buy-in: exactly what are lacking in today's system. No wonder, then, that participation in a general election is so low.

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