Thursday, December 6, 2012

On Free SHS and Evaluating Campaign Promises...

I have been largely uncomfortable with the way the debate on free SHS has gone. Today, Steven Landsburg’s words in “The Armchair Economist” gave me some clarity… (I think)

“One of the first rules of policy analysis is that you can never prove that a policy is desirable by proving its benefits. It goes without saying that nearly any policy anybody can dream up has some advantages. If you want to defend a policy, your task is not to demonstrate that it does some good, but that it does more good than harm.” Thus on the flipside, if you want to oppose a policy, your task is not to demonstrate that it does some harm, but that it does more harm than good.

To demonstrate that a program does more good/harm than harm/good, one must at least take an implicit stand on the fundamental philosophical issue of what ‘more’ means, and how much ‘more’ is required to implement a policy, or throw it out of the window. You also have to determine the right standard for weighing one kind of cost (harm) against another kind of benefit (good).

It is easy to get carried away with making long lists of pros and cons, forgetting that sooner or later, we must decide how many cons it takes to outweigh a particular pro, and vice versa.

We can commission experts to estimate costs and benefits, but when the costs are measured in apples and the benefits in oranges, mere arithmetic cannot illuminate the path to ‘righteousness’. When all the facts are in, we still need a moral philosophy to guide our decisions. This is where ideological differences come in and invariably leads to people on either side of the fence.

Thus the winner of the elections (or any elections for that matter), will not determine whether a manifesto policy is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, whatever those words mean to you in this context.

The important thing to me then, is to ask how Ghana can benefit from the dialogue about this free SHS policy or any other campaign promise, no matter the outcome of the elections.

In the case of free SHS, if the NDC wins, how do we hold them up to the standard of ‘not now’? How do we ensure that they put in place at least some of the preparatory measures required for ‘later’, and at a pace that will not make the ‘later’ effectively ‘never’?

Should the NPP win, how do we ensure that the catastrophic ‘now’ predictions of harm are minimized? How do we ensure that casualties will be minimized even if it falls flat on its face like some predict?

Sitting down and folding our arms should not be an option, no matter what side of the divide we find ourselves on. It is in no one’s interest to just wait and be able to say “Aha! We said it!” especially when the future of the nation is at stake.

But then again, that’s just my two cent’s worth.

PS: Talking this over with my Dad made me realize this may be seen as a call for a national development agenda so that we are not swinging from party manifesto to manifesto. But alas! We all know how that story goes…