More theory needed: why things work

We have a lot of good theories as to why government policies don’t work. Regulatory capture explains why regulating agencies cosy up to the industries they’re suppose to reign in. Politicians’ relentless focus on short term economic growth and desperate chasing of positive headlines causes them to embrace ill-advised short-term measures (and forget about action on things like climate change!). Meanwhile, the civil service’s tenure and lack of accountability allows it to indulge in exuberant nest-feathering wastes of taxpayers’ money. Issues of status and pride saturate the decisions of all ranks of government officials.

These theories are not only intuitive, they are also backed up by research and evidence. And yet…

And yet…

And yet… The common agricultural policy is getting reformed. Governments are starting to make changes to combat global warming. CFC’s were controlled, to the great benefit of the ozone layer and humans. The National Health Service scores well on many factors, most especially cost-efficiency. The long-term decision to phase lead out of petrol has brought huge benefits. Vaccines, clean air and water acts, and many other small governmental interventions produce enormous benefits.

The point is not to present a hagiography of wise governmental interventions. It’s simply to notice the tension between simple and intuitive theories of governmental failure, with evidence of governmental success. We need more and better theories: theories that can explain why governments succeed, so that we can combine them with our theories of failure and decide what a particular government policy will actually accomplish.

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