7 Jun 2018

Policy instability and the drive for change

While writing my paper on desalination, I came up with the idea that the stability of a government policy would depend on how close or distant it was from the public's ideal, i.e.,
...the mismatch between the incidence of costs and benefits indicates the degree of inefficiency and risk of collapse from economic, political or environmental
While discussing this idea in class, I scribbled out the following illustration of that idea:

The red line shows the amount of enthusiasm objectively supported by "science," which helps clarify if the public is too optimistic about the policy (e.g., recycling) or too pessimistic (e.g., nuclear power), but that discussion is secondary to the main point on stability, i.e., this figure:
As you can see -- and yes, it's a "no duh!" concept -- a government policy that veers too far from the diagonal is going to be unpopular, either because the policy is too weak or too strong relative to public preferences. These relative positions are important with non-democratic governments, as there are many ways in which an unhappy people can undermine or avoid an unpopular policy.

Why would politicians deviate from the public will?
  • Corruption: serving special interests
  • Ideology: personal beliefs over the beliefs of the people
  • Error: misunderstanding what the public wants.
In all cases, the further the deviation, the greater the instability of and/or damage from that policy.

Bottom line: A policy that fails to match public preferences is unlikely to last.