Friday , October 18 2019

A start, or an end?

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Summary:
Sometimes, the simplest questions get overlooked. Just as we must always ask of any statistic “is that a big number or not?” so we must ask of any policy: is it the end or the start? I ask because of a recent ComRes poll which found that 48% of voters agree with the statement “I “don’t really care whether or not or how the UK leaves the EU, I just want the uncertainty to be over.” But of course, it is nonsensical to think a no-deal Brexit will end the uncertainty. Instead, as Tom Kibasi says, it will mean “a decade of Brexit, Brexit and more Brexit.” No deal is the start of a process, not the end. There are other policies where we should ask the same question: is this the start or the end? For example:  - Nationalization. Viewed as an end, this is just a way for the state to seize

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Sometimes, the simplest questions get overlooked. Just as we must always ask of any statistic “is that a big number or not?” so we must ask of any policy: is it the end or the start?

I ask because of a recent ComRes poll which found that 48% of voters agree with the statement “I “don’t really care whether or not or how the UK leaves the EU, I just want the uncertainty to be over.”

But of course, it is nonsensical to think a no-deal Brexit will end the uncertainty. Instead, as Tom Kibasi says, it will mean “a decade of Brexit, Brexit and more Brexit.” No deal is the start of a process, not the end.

There are other policies where we should ask the same question: is this the start or the end? For example:

 - Nationalization. Viewed as an end, this is just a way for the state to seize dividends. But we should instead see it as the start of the transformation of businesses. For the left, this means managing them in a (well-defined) conception of the public interest. For the right, by contrast, it raises the danger of sloppier management. A big criticism of the part-nationalization of Lloyds and RBS is that it missed the opportunity to change the way banks are run. It was an end, not a start.

 - Labour’s plan to give workers a 10% stake in the business they work for. Viewed as an end, this is small beer – a small dividend cheque for workers, a small dilution of current owners. It’s merit, however, lies in the hope that it is the start of something. Giving workers a stake might raise productivity, and lead to demands for a bigger stake and more control. As Tocqueville wrote:

Democracy does not give the people the most skilful government, but it produces what the ablest governments are frequently unable to create: namely, an all-pervading and restless activity, a superabundant force, and an energy which is inseparable from it and which may, however unfavorable circumstances may be, produce wonders. These are the true advantages of democracy.

 - Scrapping tuition fees. Viewed as an end, this is mildly regressive. It’s merit, however, lies in it being a start. It’s part of what James Meadway has called decommodification – an expansion of the realm in which market values do not dominate. And, over time, it could return universities to their traditional educative function and prevent them being mere consumer experiences wherein the customer is king.

 - Basic income. As an end, this is technocratic welfare reform of dubious merit. But as Guy Standing says, its value lies instead in it triggering longer-term cultural change:

People who have basic security become more altruistic and tolerant, and thus better citizens. Basic income also strengthens resilience to life’s shocks and hazards. In reducing feelings of stress…it not only improves health and thus frees up money for other purposes or needs, but it also leads to more rational and long-term decision-making.

This is why experiments on basic income, whilst valuable, don’t tell us the whole story, as they haven’t run for long enough, or been widespread enough, to capture such potential change.

This is not to say that all policies are starts rather than ends. One criticism of New Labour is that too many of its policies, whilst welcome in themselves, were ends rather than starts. Increased public spending did improve public services, but such improvements lasted only as long as the Labour government did. And whilst the “terror and targets” style of management might have had a few short-run efficiency gains, these stopped when people learned to game the system, and when hierarchical managerialism crowded out goodwill and intrinsic motivations. Ostrom4

My point here is to echo Derek Wall’s recent interpretation (reviewed here) of Elinor Ostrom’s work. For here, he writes, “a core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that help bring out the best in humans” – that is, ones that enable and encourage free cooperation.

And herein lies a paradox. Most people agree that institutions shape behaviour – be it righties complaining that welfare states create a dependency culture, lefties complaining that neoliberalism makes us mean and selfish, or McCloskeyites and Smithians describing how commerce fosters virtue. And yet despite this, there is little explicit political thinking about which policies and institutions might best be a way of starting a journey to a good society,

Of course, bounded rationality means there’s a (tight?) limit to what such thinking might accomplish. And as Ostrom’s work showed, the devil is in the detail and the context. But nevertheless, there is an alternative way of thinking here. There should be more to politics than mindless “customer is king” consumerism.

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