Sunday, June 14, 2015

Put Public Funds Directly into the Hands of the People

Who should decide how to spend public funds?

Hardly a day goes by without another news report about supposed-to-be public servants violently assaulting the citizens who they are supposed to be protecting. (Until editors decide that the story is old and they move on to the next hot topic. Then we will likely see those reports only if we look for them, or if an incident sparks an uprising.)

Hardly a day passes that we don't see new reports of corruption by elected and appointed officials somewhere in the world. Corruption anywhere is a threat to civil society everywhere, because if we fail to create systems of government that are honest and responsive, we will suffer further erosion of trust in the integrity and value of our civil institutions. There will be some segment of the population that is more prone to being seduced by claims of a pure, perfect ideology, an alternative system, if the established order is in decline. Whatever fundamentalist, reactionary ideology is most prominently opposing the establishment will inevitably appear more attractive when contrasted with this unsustainable and corrupt system that we've made [even though the competing, reactionary ideology brings its own less visible systemic defects (less visible to its adherents).]

In order to thrive, our society requires healthy institutions that enjoy the confidence of the people. We need to see and have confidence that governments and public officials are operating in the public interest.

Would we be better-off with an alternative political paradigm that puts public funds directly into the hands of the people? Each of us might be asked to decide how to spend a small, equal fraction of the total public budget. We would spend in ways that we think would benefit the public, with the condition that our choices must line up with the opinions of at least a significant portion of our fellow citizens. If I spend my share of public funds on things that, say, 50% of citizens feel promote the public interest... we could be pretty sure that my choices, whatever they are, will in fact promote the public interest at least somewhat and probably quite a bit. We can use public random surveys to know what people think regarding this or that public service (to find out to what extent people think particular services produce benefit for society and the larger environment). We can make a paradigm that, in its very operation, directs people's attention to the question of how public funds are being and should be used. Imagine a system of surveys that ask where more public funds should be directed, and where we should reduce public spending.

If I put a large fraction (say 80%) of my share of public funds toward support of programs and projects that three-quarters of citizens agree promote the public interest, I might be allowed more latitude in deciding how to use the remainder of my share of these funds. I might be free to use that smaller fraction to support programs that, say, 20% of citizens agree promotes the public interest. This question of what might benefit the community is a really big question, and one on which reasonable people might disagree. Within this paradigm, the most widely-supported programs would receive the bulk of the public dollars (or Bitcoins, maybe), while other programs (more controversial or experimental programs, perhaps) would also have access to reduced but still significant amounts of public funding.

If we apply more generally this idea of dispersing public policy decisions to all the people, we could manage environmental impacts in ways that are in accord with what most people think is acceptable. If we take a survey and learn that most people think we would be better-off and our children would be better-off if we were to reduce carbon emissions by, say, 40% over the next ten years, then we should have a policy that would bring about that reduction (about 5.5% per year). We can assume that some people would want a greater-than-40% reduction, while others would want less-rapid reduction or no reduction. Forty percent in ten years might be the median or average rate at which people think we should reduce emissions of carbon to the atmosphere.

We could issue permits for fossil carbon emissions (or carbon extraction) and auction the permits in a free market, with the number of permits offered corresponding to what most people think is acceptable. We can apply this idea to the management of all kinds of human impact on the environment.

When the decision of how to spend public funds is put into the hands of the people at large, no person would be forced to support a program with which they had a philosophical disagreement. With a sliding-scale criterion for eligibility, there would be no hard cut-off point for access to funds. No program manager would have reason to be hyper-concerned about achieving a particular qualifying score (50%, for example). Instead, all managers and providers of public services would have an abiding interest in improving their service or efficiency, regardless of precisely where they might fall on a public approval ratings scale.

Within such a paradigm, I suspect that there would be broad support for public sponsorship of secular (non-sectarian) schools, public parks, libraries, basic scientific research, public health services... I know that I would want to support these things. [One thing I like about secular (non-religious) schools is that we would be less likely or not at all likely to find the teaching of an 'us-vs-them' mentality. We would be more likely to see expressions of the idea that we are all Earthlings. We must work together to make a healthy global community and to solve the great challenges that confront us.]

Biological Model for Politics and Economics

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