The difficulty of attributing policy success

When an economy is booming and prosperous, governing politicians like to take much of the credit and put it all down to their successful policies. They may occasionally stray into a more balanced and honest assessment and give credit to the ‘hard-working’ people of the nation. But it seems to be difficult for them to resist a bit of ego-stroking.

By contrast, when times are more difficult, they will tend to either blame their predecessors in government, when these are their opponents or, if the incumbent government has been in power for too long to make this credible, they will blame factors beyond their control: global economic forces external to the national economy: a ‘global financial crisis’ in the case of former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown. These habits of attribution on the part of politicians seem to be par for the course. Statements of more balance and honesty may pay greater dividends in the long run in the minds of the electorate, especially when they are increasingly distrustful of politicians in general, as is the case in many countries today. In the USA, which has a greater cultural tradition than many other countries of individualism and self-reliance and probably a more widespread scepticism of government action, a huge proportion of citizens are likely to ignore the impact of the latter and put success down to their own efforts. Indeed, how can individuals judge what part of their success in finding a job or starting a firm is down to government policy and how much is due to personal behaviour?

The answer to this question is a little unsatisfactory: we can either rely on the empirical analysis of experts, such as professional economists, or we can make judgements for ourselves drawn from the more personal experiences we encounter in our community or that gleaned through sources such as the media. In today’s more fragmented and pluralistic world, there are many sources of the latter, and equally as many different viewpoints, making it hard to come to certain conclusions and decide what is right. When many of us tend to read views that simply confirm our prejudices rather than exploring and considering fresh perspectives, how are we to make wise judgements which inform our behaviour?

In the realm of economic policy, governments of all persuasions nowadays engage in a whole range of interventions, from demand management through fiscal and monetary policies to supply side measures in areas such as regulation, taxes and subsidies, education and innovation. Some of these may have an impact over the short-run, such as a few years. Others, particularly in the education of the young, or in the encouragement of research and development activity in firms or universities, may only have an effect over the longer run, even taking decades to come to full fruition. A government in power may end up taking credit for all sorts of policy outcomes which were the result of actions taken by a much older administration. More subtly, when the incumbent decides that the previous government actually had the right idea on a particular policy, and continues in the same direction, they may try to take more credit than is their due, when decisions taken by the political opposition when they were in power start to have a positive effect. In such situations, it becomes difficult for our leaders to attribute praise fairly and honestly to those who deserve it.

So how can we play our part as an active political citizen, especially when making judgements in the run-up to an election such as we have in the UK at the moment? Personally, I welcome pluralism in the media as part of an evolutionary process, even when it is difficult to know which sources of information to believe. It means that we have to deal with a great deal of ‘noise’, misinformation and the concomitant mistakes. But surely it is better to draw on a mixture of experiences, for example from our own community, and try to go beyond rigid ideologies by reading widely, even when we seem to be going against our treasured beliefs. This can be a challenge. Being something of an agnostic when it comes to all belief systems and trying to integrate ideas which seem to be in conflict to come to a more holistic worldview can be very enlightening. Resolving such conflicts through careful reflection and looking to the potential in everything as a source of information and inspiration can lead one down a more philosophical path, but could ultimately be more satisfactory than clinging to the polarised opinions of left or right in politics.

Moving beyond the two sides of a debate, drawing on both, and becoming more detached from either, may yet lead to a sounder outcome. Returning to our original theme, we can reflect on the successful outcomes in our society, with the credit taken for them by the incumbent government, as having a source more distant than the decisions taken in the recent past and lying in the chain of events, both positive and negative, that led to the present, and stretch back in time in an endless fashion. This kind of thinking allows for a more nuanced judgement and a more philosophical perspective on policy outcomes and also success in everyday life. Many decisions and actions led to our present successes and failures, and assigning too much blame to one source or another ignores the deeper roots of current events.

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