The Independent Group promises a break with ideology-led politics but that is simply not possible to achieveby Julian Baggini / February 27, 2019 / Leave a comment
“Our aim is to pursue policies that are evidence-based,” proclaimed the Independent Group in its founding statement. It’s not exactly the part of the declaration that got the most attention, for two good reasons. First, isn’t everyone in favour of evidence-based policy? What’s the alternative? Government by gut feeling? Administration by intuition?
Second, we’ve heard all this before. In the early days of New Labour’s government, for example, the 1999 Modernising government white paper declared that “policy decisions should be based on sound evidence.”
It’s telling that the Blair administration made the most noise about Evidence-Based Policy-Making (EBPM). For New Labour, the emphasis on evidence was supposed to signal a break with ideology. “This government has given a clear commitment that we will be guided not by dogma but by an open-minded approach to understanding what works and why,” as David Blunkett said in a 2002 speech.
The Independent Group is taking the same line, saying its aim is to pursue policies “not led by ideology.” The trouble is that this aim is incoherent. Of course policy should be informed by evidence, but evidence alone can never determine what the right policy should be. As David Hume pointed out nearly 300 years ago, you cannot leap from facts to values. No amount of information about how things are can tell you how they ought to be.
To take an obvious example, the evidence could tell you the probable effects on the government’s tax take of various different fiscal changes. But once the evidence is in, only “ideology”—or to give it a better name, political judgment—can decide which policy is best. Whether the priority is to reduce government spending, reduce inequality or soak the rich is a political choice, not a technocratic one.
In that sense values, not data, are the basis of policy. The job of evidence is to inform policy-making to maximise the chances that any given reform achieves the ideological goal. It cannot tell us what that goal should be.
That is not the only problem with declaring that policy has to be evidence-led. The truth is that when making any genuinely innovative reform, the evidence is rarely clear anyway. Even when a policy’s been implemented elsewhere, you can never be sure that what works in one socio-political ecosystem (Singaporean…