‘Evidence-based’ policies are damaging UK policymaking

New research exposes the flaws in 'evidence-based' policymaking

Both the government and the public should be far more sceptical about policies which are purported to be ‘evidence-based’, argues new research released today by the Institute of Economic Affairs.

In Quack Policy – Abusing Science in the Cause of Paternalism, Jamie Whyte exposes how politicians promote regulations and taxes under the justification of scientific evidence, yet the experts promoting these policies often make basic errors and have little or no grasp of economics.

Using four policy areas as case studies - minimum alcohol pricing, passive smoking, global warming and happiness – ‘evidence-based’ policymaking is shown to be based on poor science. It also provides a mechanism for academic elites to impose their own values on society as a whole, showing contempt for the wishes of the public.

The flaws of ‘evidence-based’ policymaking:

  • A disregard for substitution effects.

Evidence-based policy often fails to account for changes in people’s behaviour following a new regulation or ban. For example, a minimum price of alcohol and concurrent rise in prices would push consumers to buy drinks in the black market. The social and economic effects could be worse than the problems the policy was intended to address.

  • Calculating the external costs of harmful activities.

External costs cannot be calculated with any degree of certainty. In the case of carbon emissions, for example, it is necessary to know not only the subjective preferences of people globally, but also to assume the preferences of people living decades in the future.

  • Scientists’ self-interest.

Scientists are interested parties. They stand to improve their reputations and finances if governments follow their policy advice, and often are inclined to overstate the credibility of their ideas.

  • Expertise slippage.

Experts in one field are often ignorant of other fields. Climate scientists, for example, have no concept of how businesses will respond to taxes and regulations – a crucial consideration when designing environmental policies and assessing their likely impact.

  • The problem of paternalism.

So-called ‘evidence-based’ policies force people to live according to values they reject. For example, supporters of ‘happiness policy’ allow the state to coerce people to act against their preferences in ways policymakers think will help their wellbeing.

Commenting on the research, Dr Richard Wellings, Deputy Editorial Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said:

“For too long governments have been overly influenced by self-interested scientists promoting their own agendas. While scientific evidence should not be ignored, it must however be scrutinised carefully before it is used to inform policy. Economic considerations should also be given due weight. Both policymakers and the general public need to become more aware of the characteristic mistakes polluting the arguments of evidence-based policy.”

Notes to editors:

To arrange an interview about the report please contact Stephanie Lis, Communications Officer, slis@iea.org.uk or 07766 221 268.

The full report, Quack Policy – Abusing Science in the Cause of Paternalism, can be downloaded from www.iea.org.uk.

Jamie Whyte is a management consultant, a fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs and a senior fellow of the Adam Smith Institute. He has previously worked as a foreign currency trader and as a philosophy lecturer at Cambridge University. He is the author of Crimes Against Logic (McGraw Hill, Chicago, 2004), A Load of Blair (Corvo, London, 2005) and Free Thoughts (ASI, London, 2012). He is a frequent contributor of comment articles to newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, The Times, the Financial Times and City AM. In 2006 he won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism and in 2010 he was runner-up.

The mission of the Institute of Economic Affairs is to improve understanding of the fundamental institutions of a free society by analysing and expounding the role of markets in solving economic and social problems.

The IEA is a registered educational charity and independent of all political parties.

 

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