LIBERALISM, RESULTS-ORIENTED STRATEGIES AND EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION: THE SEARCH FOR TARGETED POLICIES
Liberalism has to rethink its approach social policy issues. Sound public policy requires that (l)iberals in North America become passionate advocates of "making government work". The "reinventing government" movement which fueled Clinton in the early 1990s has waned in recent years, leaving conservatism holding the trump cards: "if government doesn't work, let's reduce it" becomes a compelling argument. Liberalism needs to return to results-oriented strategies and move away from the culture of rights-based policies. Two trends need to be reverse if liberals are to be associated with sound public policy again.
(i) Liberals have become more comfortable with right-based arguments than with the claim that they can improve the world of their citizens with innovative public policies: One of the dangers inherent in "rights-based" arguments is that they suggest that the intention of the policy maker is more important than the results that are accomplished.. Rights should be trumps, vetoes, to be deployed carefully. In social policy discussions, where specific objectives are aimed at, they can be counterproductive.
(ii) North American liberalism has tended to confuse policy goals with policy instruments. Goals are constant. Instruments should be changing constantly. In the 1990s much of the talent in North American society gravitated towards the private sector and market oriented decision-making . The private sector encourages people to constantly reassess strategies and the means of implementing them. In liberal public policy circles, however, the implementation and the goal too often became confused. In the U.S. , "busing" and "affirmative action" are frequently cited as reasons that middle class Americans have abandoned "liberalism". In Canada , (l)iberals became concerned with establishing rights to x or y , which sounds good, but fails to deal with how public policies actually deliver specific results. The ideology of "no two-tier healthcare" preempted a discussion of how to improve the quality of Canadian health-care.
When these process-oriented intellectual trends were translated into public policy by well-intentioned liberals, they produced inefficiencies that conservatives could attack. In a world of multi-casting, shifting social alliances, brand new social networks, fast-changing market trends and consumer preferences, liberals appeared intransigent and obsolete . Now is the time to reinvent liberalism as being about innovation, inventing improved public policy, targeting results. In this world, any public policy which fails to include the word "targeted" starts with a design flaw, no matter how noble its objective. Nowhere is this lack of interest in managerial effectiveness and results-oriented public policy more evident than in the discussion of early childhood education and the related but distinct issue of child-care in Canada .
In a democratic society: the use of public policy to promote upward mobility is both adrenalin and vitamin. Since Reagan, upward mobility as a social objective and a criterion to assess the dynamism of a democratic civic culture has been appropriated by the heirs of Reaganomics. The challenge for "liberals" and "market-oriented social democrats" is to reclaim the cause of upward mobility and to abandon public policy instruments which have become important only for reasons of nostalgia.
Promoting upward mobility is the desired objective of a democratic public policy (as opposed to preserving a clan advantage or advancing a special interest group or expanding the scope of long-established bureaucracies). In the last two decades in North American politics, proponents of state-assisted social policy have fallen into two traps:
Conservatives and "neo-conservatives" took advantage of these tendencies. They benefited from innovations like social entrepreneurship, which can be targeted to specific goals and creates standards of accountability and reversibility or mid-course correcting because it is a market-based policy instrument. Conservatives came up with customized policy instruments, like vouchers, which argued for cost-effectiveness. Most importantly, they understood that the ultimate objective of state-backed social policies was to promote upward mobility, to harness the energy of people not yet in a position n to earn and create wealth. Market-complementary policy instruments of the kind associated with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation were often labeled conservative, even though their advocates and their objectives considered themselves to be liberal or social democratic in philosophy.
Social policies should be about facilitating upward mobility, not about penalizing the successful or creating one-size-fits-all public policies that are guaranteed to be conspicuously wasteful. Liberal policy instruments should be targeted and results-oriented rather than ideological and nostalgic. Successful (l)iberal parties will reclaim the banner of promoting upward mobility and there is no better place to start that than with the public policy debate on early childhood education and the appropriate role for public policy in this arena.
Child-care debate is about a number of ideologies - about proving that state programs worked. The commentary by Nobel laureate James J. Heckman in January 10th, 2006 Wall Street Journal cited below shows the complex nature of modern political debates:
It is a rare public policy initiative that promotes fairness and social justice and, at the same time, promotes productivity in the economy and in society at large. Investing in disadvantaged young children is such a policy. The traditional argument for providing enriched environments for disadvantaged young children is based on considerations of fairness and social justice. But another argument can be made that complements and strengthens the first one. It is based on economic efficiency, and it is more compelling than the equity argument, in part because the gains from such investment can be quantified-and they are large...
Important operational details of investment programs for disadvantaged children remain to be determined. Children from advantaged environments, by and large, receive substantial early investment, while children from disadvantaged environments more often do not. There is little basis for providing universal programs at zero cost, although some advocate such a policy. While there is a strong case for public support for funding interventions in the early childhood of disadvantaged children, there is no reason for the interventions to be conducted in public centers. Vouchers that can be used in privately run programs would promote competition and efficiency in the provision of early enrichment programs. They would allow parents to choose the venues and values offered in the programs that enrich their child's earliest years.
Why do liberals want always to come up with one-size-fits-all policies which expand the size of bureaucracies and may or may not be effective or efficient in producing the stated objectives? The dilemma confronting common sensical Canadians trying to come to grips with their current political choices is one between a conservative philosophy which is not interested in finding innovative and effective public policies and a (l)iberal agenda which uses outdated and inefficient public policy instruments in the pursuit of noble objectives.
There should be little debate that compensatory early childhood education is one of the most productive involvements of public policy in increasing prosperity and fairness simultaneously. The most effective Canadian public policy is one which creates a national mission in ensuring this kind of "early childhood" compensatory care. A Kids-in-Need initiative would efficiently marshal public resources and create the kind of policy interventions which are likely to provide children with the assistance required to lead lives that they choose. As Heckman writes, the "operational details" or "policy instruments" remains the subject of a tactical debate, based solely on the answer to the question "what works best?" and on no ideological preconception.
(L)iberal public policies have tended to focus too much on bureaucratic strategies . This gives (C)onservative strategists an enormous tactical advantage because they can focus on targeted results..when they choose to address these issues. (L)iberals think it is enough to say "we are trying" whether the issue is health care, early childhood education or the regulation of toxic substances. More strangely, (l)iberals seem to miss the idealism and social commitment of middle-class Canadians who want to invest in their own high quality and customized child care, but who would be willing to endorse effective public policies which ensured that kids in need were reached by government programmes. The bizarre idea that one needs a one-size-fits-all, "universal" social programme labeled as a "right" for Canadians to buy in is simply not a fair assessment of the social policy sophistication of Canadian citizens.
The child-care debate is a good opportunity for Canadian (l)iberals to show that they can escape this trap and come up with a results-oriented liberalism, not a set of policies based on a mantra-like invocation of the "basic tenets of liberalism". Effective policies are not written on a piece of paper, but come about as a result of building coalitions of social entrepreneurs and community activists, using new technologies such as the internet to organize the energies of a productive and caring society. The child-care debate is a good opportunity for Canadian (l)iberals to design new policy instruments that can reach those in need of complementary early-childhood education rather than rely on old policy instruments that create expensive and inefficient bureaucracies. There are many experimental social investment policy instruments which aim to complement market forces: e.g. investing in educational financing of students, the so-called "tuition mortgage", privatizing social assistance and mentoring functions, producing valuable social capital through organizing the educational skills of non-credentialed immigrants. All of these are the kind of result-oriented, targeted public policies which need to be identified with an effective liberalism, a government made ready to act at internet speed. Liberals should be focusing on Kids-in-Need, not one-size-fits all programmes. In doing so, we will contribute to an international debate about social policy which looks for different instruments to achieve our aspirations in an internet age where social networking and instant messaging have provided many more rivers to the sea than our parents knew existed, let alone knew how to navigate. It will restore the vision of upward social mobility and educating new creators of wealth as the fundamental test of a responsible liberal social policy.