It seems like every time we look at the news in 2020 we see only bad ideas, and so few good ones.
What makes a bad idea? In your day to day life you can spot one a mile off; the dodgy offer on the doorstep to clean your gutters, the rip-off car salesman, the phishing email claiming to be a long-lost relative needing your bank details. We are very good in our adult lives at analysing risk and benefit in every transaction we make, whether that’s money, time, service, relationships.
Of course there are a whole series of much larger transactions of which you are a part of, that directly affects your life, with which we are less well equipped to analyse and control; public policy.
These large transactions are inescapable, needs we can’t readily organise on our own: security, infrastructure, health and social care, schooling. The purpose of government is an altruistic one, to provide those services by pooling our resources, including our decision making. It’s a service.
So how do we as an individual direct what this service does? Well as a pooled resource we can only contribute a small fraction of the decision making to the whole, through our vote, and to a lesser extent campaigning.
In this space how we do know how to direct that decision making? Can we so easily spot a “bad idea” from a good one? Think tanks traditionally feed into that space, groups of researchers that try to answer the question of what is and isn’t a good or a bad idea for government policy. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.
In truth all think tanks will in some way deviate from the pure agenda of the best policy for the maximum number of people, which might be guided by personal bias, philosophical bias or, in the worst cases, financial incentives. Some think tanks pretend to evidence based research but are employed mouthpieces of vested interests, for example Big Tobacco.
This lack of transparency is the biggest problem with evaluating “good” and “bad” ideas. If you wanted advice about a suspicious car sale, would you ask the dealer? Of course not, for fear they would be compromised and seeking to financially benefit, from you. And yet, we do this all the time on the government level, listening to bad ideas directly funded by those without our best interests at heart, which corrupts the very idea of what government is for.
The second biggest problem is uncertainty. If you want to know if a light switch is working in your house, it’s easy enough to devise a test. But how do we test public policy? For example, when we clamour for “common sense” policies like smaller class sizes, why don’t we ever collect any data on the cost of this and if this works or not? When you buy a fan, you want to know your house will be cooler. If it doesn’t work you won’t spend money on it again. And yet, we rarely ever test out any policy. We should develop sensible ways to test and trial major government policy to know that it works, and admit when we don’t know so that we can test things.
What we need is something better, sensible, evidence-based policy, that informs government and can be trusted for the public benefit. That’s what the Modern Society Institute is all about: a new type of think thank.
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