Harford on failure and experimenting in the Government

Harford talks specifically about how failure can be or cannot be a part of government. Working in the government his examples make sense of why the government is the way it is. However, there are still possibilities of experimentation (which is the first step towards failure and success) in various areas.

I am a big believer in experimentation and failure. However, it is a question of where we can experiment and how to minimise the risks of failure.

Ezra Klein: The basic argument of your book is that the only way to solve complex problems is to fail toward the correct solution. But one of the things you suggest is that this is particularly hard for governments to do. Why?

Tim Harford: Let’s think about the balance of risks in the market or the scientific method. In both cases, you could have 50 failures and one success and you’ll still come out ahead. The theory of relativity and Google and penicillin more than make up for all the failed experiments, theories and businesses. The same is true, of course, of biological evolution. The number of failures are orders of magnitude larger than the successes.

Now think about politics. Any politician knows they can have 50 policies going well and one failure the failure will dominate the next campaign. So the politician is just desperate to avoid provable failure. And they can do that either by never doing anything or by refusing to quantify and evaluate what should happen when they do do something, as that way no one can prove it went wrong.

via Tim Harford on failure – Ezra Klein – The Washington Post.


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