Data chauvinism versus the 1st law of public policy development

I learnt at the Australian Productivity Commission that the first law of public policy development is plagiarised, plagiarise, plagiarise. Why be original? Copy the successes of others, improve upon them, but do not repeat their failures, just learn from them.

I developed this policy insight from my experience at the Productivity Commission with a smart-arse Commissioner – that was the chairman’s private description of him in a conversation with me, not mine.

This Commissioner with whom I had countless arguments would respond to the many US studies I had marshalled by always asking for Australian evidence – what is the Australian evidence?

He knew that there was no Australian data or studies so he could slow the whole policy process down through this appeal to data chauvinism. The Americans are swimming in data and that is before you get to their cross-sectional data with 50 states.

Ever since then, I regarded data chauvinism – the request for Australian evidence and studies or New Zealand evidence and studies – as a stalling tactic designed either to defend the status quo.

By and large, all the local evidence shows when it augments the US studies is how a local regulation or tax screws things up further. Local evidence rarely served the interests of my opponents who were fighting against deregulation or privatisation.

It is a good public policy – you are much more likely to implement a proposal or act on a particular empirical study – if there are half a dozen to a dozen overseas studies preferably in several different countries showing much the same thing. Beware the man of one study. Milton Friedman (1957) rightly preferred to emphasize the congruence of evidence from a number of different sources and with due attention to the quality of the data:

I have preferred to place major emphasis on the consistency of results from different studies and to cover lightly a wide range of evidence rather than to examine intensively a few limited studies.

The role of empirical evidence is to resolve disagreements – to bring people closer together. One study in one country rarely does that. Many studies in many countries about the same topic of controversy is far more persuasive.


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