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Testing New Laws

April 26, 2012

Laws are society’s drugs. Some make society harmonious and prosperous, and some make it poor and unpleasant. When scientists discover a new drug, first, they analyze it chemically to estimate its effects, then they give it to rats and other animals, then to a small group of humans at a low dosage, and work their way up to larger groups of humans in higher dosages. If it turns out to be dangerous or ineffective, we find out about it before everyone dies. On the other hand, most societies give everyone a large, irreversible dose of a new law without any testing, or even without much forethought. If I had to dub any cultural practice “the worst pattern of behavior”, the way we enact laws has got to be up pretty high on the list. And it’s not like we don’t have any other option. There are 50 states and hundreds, if not thousands of separate jurisdictions in the U.S. Just try things out. If they work, great!; if not, at least you didn’t hurt that many people.

For whatever reason, people go softheaded when thinking about political leaders. They must categorize leaders into either infallible god-kings or corrupt demon-spawn seeking to destroy all that is good in the world. The whole attitude of testing policies does not allow for such categorization. Testing recognizes that *all* people are fundamentally ignorant of the future, and yet, can be well-meaning and accomplish things incrementally. To test is to admit the possibility of failure, but still put forth your best effort to solve problems. Alas, humility is not commonly associated with politics.

Policy experimentation is very dangerous to special interests. People who are afraid of trials are implicitly recognizing that they will work. Firms are often set up to take advantage of specific institutional environments, including subsidies and regulations. If the program fails, the law revert back to the old system, and the incumbent be fine. But the real danger is that the program will work, and it will spread to other jurisdictions and incumbents will be out significant amounts of money. The more likely such an experimental program is to work, the harder an incumbent will lobby to prevent testing, but the higher the benefit to society from such tests.

Evolution is smarter than you are, but we can harness it. We just need three elements: variation, selection and inheritance. Get those three forces working together and you have a solid chance of improving policy dramatically over time.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Locke permalink
    April 27, 2012 8:23 am

    Except that some things are Right, and some things are Wrong, and delaying implementation of Right things immediately and universally is Wrong.

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