How can public policy provide for holistic results?
Political philosopher Jeremy Bentham has requested that politicians should strive to achieve the greater good for the greatest number of people. This principle not only remained a guideline for rulers in centuries to come but also an unresolved challenge to policy-makers who never really figured out how to translate the passionate principle into policies with favourable results for people en large. As a result of poor translation, material progress has been overstretched far beyond social and environmental sustainability since Bentham.
The last global initiative to improve policy-making in a way to serve all people indiscriminately has been the idea of sustainable development. Policy needs to provide equally for various domains of development (economic, social, environmental) as well as for individuals and for the planet (micro – macro). Principle only outlines an imperative for equal weights of different wealth domains, without giving a hint how to achieve such equality, in particular taking into account initial asymmetry with dominant economic rules.
The dominant micro economic explanation, as brought forward by market economists, is straightforward, but explains nothing. They think that winners in the market game will produce such a fortune that increased welfare will result for all. This argument is known as a “trickle down effects”, when benefits flow from the rich to the poor through the employment, taxes and governmental programs. But trickle down is ideology, not logic!
Advocates of free market have actually used much stronger argument in support of their conviction that they know how to make all people happy, indiscriminately. Despite being scientists and even philosophers, they call this mechanism “an invisible hand” (of market). This is rather strange: intelligent people explain scientifically a formal mechanism with a concept that can not be seen, controlled and reasoned? Hm, can you imagine physicists explaining that gravitational force is controlled by invisible dwarfs? Nevertheless, mainstream economic theory has successfully ignored formal logic, until it finally hit its own material limits – which swept away the promise for welfare for all.
An alternative to micro promise of happiness for all, that clearly failed, is forwarded by macroeconomists. Just remember father of macroeconomics John Maynard Keynes himself who predicted for his grandchildren a golden age. Wise policy in management of macroeconomic trends, such as import to export, and savings to investment, would result in economic and social stability, that will enable progress of businesses and so accumulate enormous funds of wealth in only hundred years (by 2029, if one wants to be exactly precise), so that his grandchildren, you and me included, will enjoy economic abundance in material terms. Nobody would be existentially forced to sacrifice leisure for productive effort. How wrong! Not that the enormous wealth is not created – some 40 trillion of dollars is accumulated in savings globally by the assessment of the World Bank, but the distribution of savings is entirely screwed on the backs of the greatest majority of population. Trickle up effect is operating in this case, contrary to Bentham’s passions.
Here the most contemporary method of holistic policy making comes in – a voluntarism. If there is no exact holistic logic available, which clearly explains which policy alternative is the optimal for all, than all what is possible is that policy makers do as much as they can good things for people. Let’s not deny such possibility! In a way, this is sensible tactic at least for policy-makers who wish to respond consistently to the philosopher’s imperative. Politicians need to be accountable to people, and achieve results, which were previously negotiated as goals together with all interested parties. These also need to be, following the book, scientifically supported and efficiently implemented by technocratic leadership.
What on earth could be wrong with such policy voluntarism? For bureaucrats, each public problem has a compartmentalised solution. Policy maker is like a doctor who injects appropriate substance on the appropriate place of the social organism to keep it fit and running. So you have for example a liver doctor responsible for social matters and dentist for a chief of public safety. Everything is compartmentalised and so people know their job. They are so systematically specialised, that unfortunately nobody takes care for the organism as a whole. Quite a trouble when you acknowledge that in practice, sectoral policy interventions frequently work against each others’ efforts. So at the end bureaucrats produce big effort for public improvement that really solves very little. Again we obtain a result, which is far from the one we search for.
Departmentalisation of sectoral policy-making is well known problem of verticality. As a matter of fact, this difficulty is not observed passively but fought back with the horizontal thinking by policy-makers. There are public issues which are not simply results of some specific problems demanding doctor’s injection, but they span over all public concerns, such as a sustainable development, social cohesion or gender equality. So horizontalist takes say gender equality indicator as an obligatory new evaluation criteria for all sectoral policies, and add it as a new evaluation domain. Well thought, but wrong implemented! Their mistake is in applying horizontal principle in a vertical way, inconsistently and again not contributing to satisfaction of all. What would be needed is not evaluating direct and primary impacts of policy measures on gender equality but indirect (and secondary) impacts.
Long path of failures can nevertheless lead to success, step by step, when one is devoted to a mission. It is advised that in a situation when there is no straightforward mechanism to install an optimal public policy, a policy proposal that is the most horizontally effective ought to be chosen. As societies grow more complex, policy-makers should be increasingly aware not only of their own agency’s primary aims and effectiveness, but also of wider implications and unwanted secondary (horizontal) effects of their (in)activity on wider society and on overall welfare. The particular policy maker must take into account the consequences of his/her efforts for “the others”, to realise that one sector’s efforts are often contradictory to other sector’s efforts. Disregard for secondary impacts in policy evaluation might explain why good individual policies, based on strong values and even on common sense, often lead to disappointing overall results. This finally means that to fulfil the maxim of Bentham, policy measures needs to be evaluated cros-sectionally or in overlap for their synergetic effects, such as how their outcomes affect legitimate goals of other policy sectors.
Chapman J. 2004. System failure – Why governments must learn to think differently. Second edition, London: Demos.
Schnellenbach J. The Dahrendorf hypothesis and its implications for (the theory of) economic policy-making. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 29/6(2005):997-1009.