In this recent post by Ben Harris, he aptly describes a insidious culture in which after a problem is identified “something must done” regardless of what that something is. To object to what is being done is tantamount to sanctioning the existence of the problem or denying the problem exists. This is exactly the type of thinking that creates bad policy, and once that policy is enacted and the consequences of the policy are shown to be harmful, the policy persists rather than being repealed. Often the reason bad policy stays in place is because of an emotional attachment to what the policy ‘means’ rather than what the policy ‘does.’ This type of thinking has lead to some of the worst of British policy making and I wanted to highlight a few of the most entrenched examples.
Foreign Aid - There is almost nil empirical evidence of the effectiveness of Foreign Aid. There is a great swathe of evidence demonstrating its misuse. Yet still, it not only persists, but is a popular policy because to suggest removing it is tantamount to advocating the continuation of third world poverty. What this policy means is more important than what it actually does for the third world poor.
The NHS - Are there more effective health care systems? Yes, most of the developed European countries have a better health care system now. Furthermore, the other ‘Beveridge’ models in Europe, like the NHS, underperform the ‘Bismarckian’ models by a significant degree. Not only do ‘Bismarckian’ models provide better health care, they provide it in a universal sense. The NHS can be charitably described as a second rate health care system. Yet, in face of this empirical evidence, the NHS still maintains cult-like support. It is as though its supporters think that the only options are ‘the American system,’ or ‘wanting poor people to die’ (something that someone actually said to me) - this is not ignorance; it is denial.
Comprehensive Schools - Whenever some social commentator wants to highlight inequality in education, somewhat inevitably the focus is always on how to make private schools more like comprehensives. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Private schools do exactly what the people paying for them e.g. the parents, want them to. Why get rid of the only part of the education system that is working exactly as it should for the people who pay for it? Comprehensives mean equality, so that trumps all objective measures of how they perform. The fact that they are largely inferior to private schools, and radically unequal owning to the fact that rich parents monopolise housing in good school catchment areas, becomes completely irrelevant. Damn the children who have to go to them, some policy maker somewhere means well.
The Greenbelt - The Greenbelt is one of the most appalling policies ever enacted. It is the reason for the housing crisis right now. Yet, despite a chronic undersupply of housing, and the fact that less than 10 per cent of England is ‘developed’ (some of that is gardens and parks), the Greenbelt is championed as an environmental necessity, else we all succumb to the dark satanic mills. Considering how little of England is developed, support for the Greenbelt is irrational. I would be horrified if they paved over the New Forest or Snowdonia National Park, but a field adjacent to the M25 is just not the same thing. It’s a policy based on a misconception rather than reality. How inhumane do you have to be to prefer that people go homeless rather than build on an ordinary green field? It’s actually barbaric but, hey, England’s green and pleasant lands…
Drug Prohibition – I don’t do drugs, I don’t like drugs, I don’t want anybody anywhere to be addicted to drugs. Yet, I still support the decriminalisation of drugs. I am so tired of people characterising my policy position as tantamount to an endorsement of people ruining their lives with drugs. Supporting drug prohibition means you disapprove of drugs. Good for you… The empirical evidence shows that drug prohibition makes it no harder to get drugs, but instead gives the whip hand of an entire market over to the drug traffickers and has serious knock on consequences for rule of law. This applies to most ‘sin taxes’ and ‘sindustry’ regulation, but, hey, ones moral disapproval is all that matters, right? Nope.
What all these policies have in common is a strong emotional appeal and a profound paucity of empirical evidence demonstrating their superiority or effectiveness. All these policies enjoy huge popularity for emotional rather than rational reasons, but as the effects of these policies show, meaning well is not quite the same as doing good. They are the perfect policies for a shallow, empty virtue-signalling culture in denial about the consequences of their actions. The reason I would get rid of all the aforementioned policies, as well as a great many more, is because I do care about the poor, the sick, the under-educated, the homeless, and the addicted, and I don’t care about how good your intentions are.
I was recently asked to list my three least favourite government policies. As you can imagine, this was a tall order… But I’ve managed to narrow it down.
Governments kill in times of war but it’s never clear that they have reached their aims from an IR perspective. Apart from the the death and destruction there’s the awkward legislation that follows in times of war. Wars are expensive, your taxes rise to pay for them and they don’t come down once the war is over. Your civil liberties get eaten up and you never get them back. There is still legislation in this country which was made in World War One and is not getting repealed anytime soon. There are both selfish and selfless reasons to opposed war. The killing of innocent men, women and children and the fact that 10 years after Iraq they are still groping our b*llocks at the airport – nobody wins.
2. Agricultural Policy
I suppose we should be grateful that we have agricultural markets at all since we have food and people in North Korea don’t. But distortions in the agricultural markets in the form of trade tariffs, subsidies and regulation (although I do appreciate that this is slightly simplifying things) are the reason some people on this planet still don’t have food despite the fact we have the capacity to produce more than enough for everyone.The food system isn’t free/fair and, sadly, the many meaningful efforts to make it more fair (e.g. Fairtrade) simply amount to more distortions.
Agriculture is one of the biggest polluters. Were the markets not so stilted I’ve no doubt that people in cities would be eating a greater variety of fresher produce grown in carbon neutral, pollution-free, super-efficient vertical farms by now. More importantly those who previously had no seat at the table would be able to eat at last.
3. School Policy
School choice, or lack thereof, is one of my biggest pet peeves. Not only that but schools in England are oversubscribed and over subscription is a problem you can solve very easily. Privatise all schools. Give parents vouchers so they can send their children to the school of their choosing. Government vouchers give poor people what rich people have – choice. New schools rise to meet demand and all schools compete for higher quality and better value for your voucher. You would slowly see greater plurality and innovation in the education sector.
So there you have it. What I consider to be the worst of it!