What did governments get right? Gotta list them all!

by Stuart_Armstrong 6y18th Sep 201347 comments

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When predicting future threats, we also need to predict future policy responses. If mass pandemics are inevitable, it matters whether governments and international organisations can rise to the challenge or not. But its very hard to get a valid intuitive picture of government competence. Consider the following two scenarios:

  • Governments are morasses of incompetence, saturated by turf wars, perverse incentives, inefficiencies, regulatory capture, and excessive risk aversion. The media reports a lot of the bad stuff, but doesn't have nearly enough space for it all, as it has to find some room for sport and naked celebrities. The average person will hear 1 story of government incompetence a day, anyone following the news will hear 10, a dedicated obsessive will hear 100 - but this is just the tip of the iceberg. The media sometimes reports good news to counterbalance the bad, at about a rate of 1-to-10 of good news to bad. This rate is wildly over-optimistic.
  • Governments are filled mainly by politicians desperate to make a positive mark on the world. Civil servants are professional and certainly not stupid, working to clear criteria with a good internal culture, in systems that have learnt the lessons of the past and have improved. There is a certain amount of error, inefficiency, and corruption, but these are more exceptions than rules. Highly politicised issues tend to be badly handled, but less contentious issues are dealt with well. The media, knowing that bad news sells, fills their pages mainly with bad stuff (though they often have to exaggerate issues). The average person will hear 1 story of government incompetence a day, anyone following the news will hear 10, a dedicated obsessive will hear 100 - but some of those are quite distorted. The media sometimes reports good news to counterbalance the bad, at about a rate of 1-to-10 of good news to bad. This rate is wildly over-pessimistic.

These two situations are, of course, completely indistinguishable for the public. The smartest and most dedicated of outside observers can't form an accurate picture of the situation. Which means that, unless you have spent your entire life inside various levels of government (which brings its own distortions!), you don't really have a clue at general government competence. There's some very faint clues that governments may be working better than we generally think: looking at the achievements of past governments certainly seems to hint at a higher rate of success than the reported numbers today. And simply thinking about the amount of things that don't go wrong in a city, every day, hints that someone is doing their job. But these clues are extremely weak.

At this point, one should look up political scientists and other researchers. I hope to be doing that at some point (or the FHI may hire someone to do that). In the meantime, I just wanted to collect a few stories of government success to counterbalance the general media atmosphere. The purpose is not just to train my intuition away from the "governments are intrinsically incompetent" that I currently have (and which is unjustified by objective evidence). It's also the start of a project to get a better picture of where governments fail and where they succeed - which would be much more accurate and much more useful than an abstract "government competence level" intuition. And would be needed if we try and predict policy responses to specific future threats.

So I'm asking if commentators want to share government success stories they may have come across. Especially unusual or unsuspected stories. Vaccinations, clean-air acts, and legally establishing limited liability companies are very well known success stories, for instance, but are there more obscure examples that hint an unexpected diligence in surprising areas?

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