The Policy Delusion

By Kevin Baldeosingh

Policy, like God, doesn’t exist. To be sure, policy exists as a concept in people’s minds. It also has real effects because policy plans are activated through institutions, such as government. But policy is necessarily defined as a plan which has specific and intended outcomes and, as with God, there is no evidence that such a thing exists.
I have come to this conclusion after almost a decade of researching policy. My interest was in the broad area of development, with my research naturally covering sub-topics such as economics, education, crime, and so on. Economics was my main focus, since I began with the one idea which Marx got partly right: that economics shapes the behaviour and beliefs of human beings. (All Marx’s other ideas were completely wrong.) The main challenge here was to find economic policies which were relevant to small societies, because it seemed obvious to me that what worked in large countries would be mostly inapplicable here. This, however, didn’t appear obvious to local academics who cited the East Asian tigers as models we could follow.
At any rate, finding such material was difficult for me. I wasn’t in academia and, even if I could locate such research, I don’t have the intellectual capacity to follow technical arguments. I did find some non-technical studies of small European countries, but “small” in Europe ranged from five million to 15 million people. In any case, I eventually decided that, because of differences of history and culture, the strategies that worked there couldn’t be applied to our situation.
This led me to culture. If socio-economic success depended on culture—i.e. the values and behaviour of a population—how could culture be changed? Education seemed to be the obvious answer but, to my great surprise, I discovered that there is little real research in pedagogy. Nearly all the theories which are bruited about are really hypotheses: intuitively plausible ideas developed by academics which are backed up by little or no empirical research. Even the claims about which classroom techniques are best for teaching and learning have themselves not been subject to rigorous testing. And, even if they had, cultural differences might mean that what works in Finland or Japan might not have the same outcomes in Trinidad or Tobago.
At this point, my focus changed from economics to culture. The research suggested that no policy—economic, pedagogical, criminological – could be effective unless cultural mores were taken into account. Having the right institutions—the foundation concept of development policy since the 1960s—didn’t seem to have panned out. This was because institutions—elections, parliaments, central banks, schools—were undermined when a society didn’t have the values to make them function as they did in the Western societies that created them. I found good research from the Culture Matters project headed by Lawrence E. Harrison, which delineated the values of progress-prone and progress-resistant cultures, and the World Values survey headed by Ronald Inglehart. But this only told me what values were desirable, not how cultures changed. Indeed, I ended up with a feedback loop problem, for it appeared that economics shaped cultural values, but that economic progress couldn’t occur without the right cultural values.
Now the very idea of policy rests on the belief that, if such-and-such a plan is put in place, it will have a desired outcome. Obviously, then, if policy does not have the desired outcome, it can’t rightly be called policy. Sociologist Duncan J. Watts, in his book Everything is Obvious writes: “…the late 19th and early 20th centuries were characterised by pervasive optimism among engineers, architects, scientists and government technocrats that the problems of society could be solved in the same way that the problems of science and engineering had been solved during the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution…this scientific aura was a mirage. In reality, there was no science of planning – just the opinions of individual planners who relied on their intuition to speculate about how their plans would play out in the real world.”
And so I came to a conclusion which the late Lloyd Best had reached a long time ago: that the only thing to be done is “play for change” – i.e. to put minimal plans in place in the hope that desirable (and not even desired) outcomes will be achieved. Watts suggests, “There are…as many ways to measure and react to different problems as there are problems to solve, and no one-size-fits-all approach exists. What they all have in common, however, is that they require planners…to abandon the conceit that they can develop plans on the basis of intuition and experience alone. Plans fail, in other words, not because planners ignore common sense, but rather because they rely on their own common sense to reason about the behaviour of people who are different from them.”
Does this mean that, as a country, we cannot direct our destiny but may rely on the caprice of chance or fate? Not necessarily, although that is what we have in fact been doing for the past 50 years. There are small policy measures which we can take, which have a good probability of positive long-term outcomes. Unfortunately, our politicians are so myopic that even these minimal measures may never get off the ground. The ideas bring no immediate or even short-term political benefit, and the outcomes cannot be defined save in the broadest terms. I will deal with just one in this essay: pre-natal care.
In her book Origins, science writer Annie Murphy Paul summarises the scientific research on how the nine months within the womb influences a person’s health, temperament, and even IQ. Much of this research is new, and I am not all sure that all the claims Paul makes are justified. However, if it is true that the quality of a human being can be improved by optimising the pre-natal environment, this is a policy worth pursuing since it is cost-effective and is unlikely to have unintended harmful consequences. Paul lists the following measures: 1. Improved access to pre-natal care for pregnant women; 2. Providing healthy food to the woman; 3. Plans to protect and provision pregnant women in emergency situations, such as natural disasters, as well as stress-reduction and support-building programmes; 4. Screen pregnant women for depression and other serious psychological conditions. 5. Regulate and ban chemicals which endanger foetuses.
One possible outcome of such a policy would be an elevation of the average national IQ (which at present stands at 85, one standard deviation below average). A 1997 paper by Bernard Devlin and his team of researchers argued that the impact of the pre-natal environment on intelligence is equal to or even greater than the child’s upbringing. Certainly, in T&T, our education system appears to have had negligible effects on intelligence. I believe we would have to re-tool our curriculum to take advantage of any IQ gains from pre-natal improvements but, if this could be achieved, then development would occur organically and in ways we could not (and need not) predict. The psychologist Heinder Rindermann has shown how intellectual ability in a society is a better predictor of democracy than the number of years of schooling, and psychologist Ian Dreary has found that children’s IQ at age 10 predicts their progressive values (such as racial tolerance and individual autonomy) as adults.
These are desirable outcomes for any nation. However, even this general policy might face political barriers: for our politicians, to a large extent, depend on an ignorant electorate to keep them in power.

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