Policy, Definitions and Discourse

On trains I have plenty of time. Cramped and cold on my top berth in a second class compartment I found myself musing over definitions in everyday discourse amongst other things. We free market types like viewing everything in terms of markets. More often than not this a convenient thing–mental profits, a marketplace of ideas…

I used to find it difficult to jump from the scale of governance to the scale of markets and I think I was right. How would you define a citizen for example? Is being a citizen equivalent to being a consumer in the marketplace? What role does duty have to play then? Its hard to deny that duty is a hugely motivating factor in society.

How does one know which problems are public problems to be solved by government and which are private problems to be solved by the market? Consider this situation: Industry A wants to use clean technology, it pays to adopt machinery– the clean air as a result is public and free. The cost is private the profit is public. What kind of a problem is this? What kind of incentive can make the industry do this if no direct benefit exists?

Another theme has to do with the quality of life. What do we mean by ‘quality of life’, and to what extent should we rely on government, as opposed to markets, to provide it? If we follow the classical libertarian argument the answer is close the zilch for the role of the government. That might be so. However, what if being an active civil society is not part of the culture of a people? Consider Peter Bauer’s observations on beggary in India. Bauer says that Indian religion (at least the vast majority practiced) encourages alms and hence begging is a culturally imbibed and culturally sanctioned phenomenon. This might be blasphemy, however, I have never, for example, seen a Sikh or a Parsi begger thus far.

Yet another theme that ought to interest and influence public policy has to do with two of the most controversial and important policy goals of equity and efficiency. Most people agree that equity concerns are at the heart of most distributive conflicts (who gets what). The real question is this: What sorts of issues involve distributive conflicts? When I say what sort of issues I mean that we must question the rationale between the choosing gender sensitive budgeting over a defense centric budget, for example. The reason this is important is because it answers two vital concerns of people in society; What things are like each other? and What does equal treatment consist of? Once these are clarified, policy becomes simpler to frame.

The last of my concerns is understanding whether there must necessarily be a tradeoff between equity and efficiency? The question of of defining ‘welfare’ is also vital. Is welfare something we expect governments to do? Or do and can citizens see a role for themselves in the process of welfare?

The trouble is the inherent conflict between pairs of goals. Take for example the case of security and liberty. Without a definition they sound ambiguous and antithetical. Are they? Not if we define liberty as the capacity to take care of ourselves and be secure in that.

To my mind the notion of absolute needs is a political one (like the need for security), the truth is that we relatively need security. What does this mean, and why is it relevant to politics and policy? It is relevant because it implies that you can use a range of options to satisfy this relative need– not just the government. Policy rests on future needs and risk protection. What if were able to take such policy into our hands? We already take care of our need for dignity, community and belonging. Much of policy is just an extension of this waiting to happen.

I will end with a couple of thoughts on liberty. That the State constricts individual liberty is a fact. To what extent is this ethical or good for people is a different question all together. Liberty too involves complicated questions.

For example: every decision to limit an individual’s or firm’s activity to protect others from harm involves a decision about equity: Whom will we protect? Who will bear the cost of that protection? Is this a public responsibility? What are the fall outs? Will it work?

In reality, we as a society limit individual’s liberty far more than any simple definition of liberty would suggest. We limit individual’s liberty to achieve things we think are good for society as a whole.

Is there a trade off between security and efficiency? Is there a trade off between liberty and security? Is there a liberty-equity trad eoff? Doesn’t it depend on how you define efficiency, security, equity and liberty?