Unlearn to Learn Public Policy

Eight things to unlearn in order to appreciate policymaking better

This week I’m skipping my weekly public policy review. Instead, I have a compilation of eight things that one should unlearn even before starting to learn public policy. Because of the number of lives that government policies affect, we are often moved by cognitive biases and emotional narratives while thinking of public policy. This post is meant to check this inclination.

Now, if one wishes to learn about public policy in the Indian context, there are several great (and short) pieces to refer to. For instance, Ajay Shah’s blog post Become a public policy thinker in three easy steps or Nitin Pai’s The eightfold path to transforming India are great starting points. My personal favourite is this lecture by Dr Kelkar, titled Reflections on the Art and Science of Policymaking.

In this post, however, I am interested in what we need to unlearn in order to appreciate the intricacies of public policy. I have a non-exhaustive list of eight beliefs to let go of, arranged in no particular order.

Belief 0: What I know is golden, so I can’t let go of it

The zeroth step, of course, is being open to the process of unlearning. We come with our own biases, shaped by our varied experiences and perceptions. But our experience or knowledge is not always indicative of the macroreality. An unrelenting hold on what we have already learnt is the equivalent of the sunk cost fallacy in economics.

Belief 1: Good intentions translate to good policies

I defer to an inexact analogy here. A good motive is like the potential energy of a stone resting on the edge of a cliff. The stone has the capacity to get work done by virtue of its position.

A good policy, on the other hand, is like the kinetic energy of this stone falling off the cliff. A good policy has the capacity to get things moving towards the desired outcomes.

Just as both forms of energies have the capacity to get work done, good intentions and good policies also have the capacity of accomplishing objectives in public policy. But this by no means implies that they are same. Conversion of potential energy to kinetic energy requires a conservative force to act on it. Similarly, good intentions need lots of conscious effort before they are ‘converted’ to a good policy.

Moreover, the stone resting on a cliff also has the potential to kill if it falls on an unsuspecting passerby below. Similarly, good intentions alone can lead to worse-off outcomes and even lead to an erosion of moral values. For example, the Morarji Desai government in 1977 ordered a prohibition on alcohol with the ‘good’ intention of improving the health of the citizens. But this ban turned out to be a disastrous policy, leading to deaths due to spurious liquor, and the subsequent rise of organised crime like smuggling and money laundering, all having roots in the black market of alcohol. So good intentions do not equate to good policies. Remember demonetisation?

­­­­Belief 2: The codes of morality that apply within a nation-state should also apply to the conduct between nation-states

Trying to figure out the ethical dimensions of a US attack on Iraq or Afghanistan is a moot question to ask because the rules of the game differ according to the context. The morality of a nation-state within its boundaries is in most cases, based on a document like the constitution which every citizen and the government is expected to adhere to. A deviation from the principles of constitutionalism is thus considered wrong or inimical to the interests of the nation-state. On the other hand, the rules of the game that apply to international affairs and geopolitics are completely different. There is no constitution or a written code of conduct here. Instead, the fundamental law which applies to international relations is that of power.

Belief 3: India’s bane is that while the policies are good, their implementation is bad

A policy that does not envisage its implementation is, in fact, a poor policy to start with. Though one needs to discount the time scaling challenge that all governments face, a policy that remains oblivious to the implementation aspect is no good either. The word implementation is often seen in terms of enforcement capacity and perceived stakeholder attitudes, two variables which are both prima facie known (even if not accurately) before a policy is made. Thus, a policy that does not envisage the role of these factors is by definition an incompetent policy. Remember, not all unintended policy consequences are unanticipated.

Belief 4: Certainty and consistency of views over a long period is a hallmark of good policy analysis

Stephen Walt, professor of International Relations at Harvard University wrote a brilliant piece a few years ago where he offered the Top 10 things he was wrong about. Such humility and lack of certitude is a boon for public policy thinkers. If empirical evidence proves otherwise, one must replace their deeply held beliefs. And as some great economist (allegedly Keynes) once claimed — “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

Belief 5: Economics is about picking your poison — capitalism or socialism

Economics is the bedrock of good policymaking. It is the science behind the practice. The subject, at its core, seeks to understand the study of human behaviour. Economics is certainly not about eulogising the patron saints of economic theories, whether it is Karl Marx or Adam Smith. As long as our efforts are aimed at substantiating why, and how human beings behave, we can aim to have policies that can build the right incentives, nudges or restrictions. Being wedded to an economic theory in the face of contradictory evidence is repeating the folly described in Paradigm 4.

Belief 6: A government should target all its energies at the most disadvantaged section of society

More often than not, change happens at the margin. For example, economic reforms initiated in the early 1990s greatly improved the lives of many people in India. But these reforms helped people at the margin — the ones who had access to at least one of three things — money, education or skill. The reforms could not substantially turn around the lives of sections which had none of the three prerequisites.

A government can change the lives of many more people at the margin with the same amount of effort. This certainly does not mean that governments should ignore those below the margin, but it is equally improbable to expect rapid changes with a one-dimensional strategy. Let the best not be the enemy of the good.

Belief 7: A well-designed government policy can meet several objectives at once

Multi-objective optimisation is the bane of policymaking and institutional design. As if it wasn’t enough that every government policy needs to balance equity, efficiency, and effectiveness, we also fall into the trap of trying to solve several problems with one policy.

The reason some government policies and institutions perform sub-optimally is that they try to do hyper multi-objective optimisation, ultimately creating a system that meets none of the objectives. So, practising parsimony while thinking of desired policy outcomes is underrated.

A classic example of a government policy trying to achieve way too many things at once is India’s tax policy.

Belief 8: Politics is disgusting

Discarding one’s disgust for politics is a good starting point in public policy. After all, politics precedes homo sapiens. And politics begins wherever two or more people are involved. There’s politics in our families. All religions are about politics. So are governments.


Reading and listening recommendations on public policy matters

  1. China’s median age will soon overtake America’s, The Economist. China’s one-child policy must count as one of the world’s largest PolicyWTFs.

  2. The Forgotten History of Afghanistan-Pakistan Relations by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Tara Vassefi goes to the root of the hostility between the two countries.

That’s all for the week, folks. Read and share. 再见 👋