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Making Policy for Complex Systems: A Medical Model for Economics

An interesting paper on policy and rationality.

Making Policy for Complex Systems: A Medical Model for Economics

In recent years, policy analysts have shown a growing interest in less rationalistic policymaking models. Medical knowledge may be useful to consider in this regard, since it combines practical knowledge with the findings of numerous analytic disciplines, and includes procedures for dealing with high uncertainty. In contrast, economic policymaking often applies analysis from a single discipline directly to a multifaceted problem. A broader “socioeconomic” approach emulating the medical model would incorporate variables such as political, social, cultural, psychic, and environmental factors.

Key points

  • The search for less rationalistic models for policy science may benefit from an examination of the medical profession, or, indeed, other professions that are based on the application of a body of scientific knowledge. (Engineering, for example, might be pertinent, but law would not be.) This suggestion assumes, first of all, that knowledge is organized and applied differently when the immediate purpose is to provide service rather than to achieve greater comprehension; the distinction separates professional knowledge from that of the basic sciences.
  • Professionals emphasize finding solutions to a problem, whether or not they fully understand how and why the solution works, whereas researchers in basic science focus on discovering explanations for the unknown, not on means of responding to it.
  • “Accommodative” mechanisms allows one to function, “make do,” when faced with an unresolvable difficulty.
  • This system of scientific inquiry successfully serves the advancement of science, but the application of such a system to decision-making in the real world of public policy has received little attention. In many instances, policy decisions require dealing with all the main elements that are intertwined in a single phenomenon.
  • analysis based on one discipline will lead to an erroneous knowledge base for policymaking
  • How does the special structure of medical knowledge enable physicians to compensate for the inability to resynthesized First, medicine draws on several analytic disciplines simultaneously without seeking to truly integrate their findings or assumptions–in what might be referred to as a mechanical, rather than a chemical, combination. A second factor that enables medical practice to proceed without a full resynthesizing process is its reliance on past experience, case studies, statistical relationships, and other sources of practical information.Finally, to cope with complex and only partially known systems, physicians formulate, as an integral part of their discipline, certain procedures for dealing with decision-making in circumstances of high uncertainty.
  • Obviously, economists have not been oblivious to the impact of noneconomic factors, but they have dealt with them in a fashion that does not resemble the medical model. One approach has been to try to incorporate noneconomic factors into economic theories as if they were economic in nature.
  • What is often missing in any of these approaches that would complete the development of an economics modeled on the practice of medicine is the formulation and application of guidance principles.These are principles that help policy analysts and policymakers to cope with high uncertainty resulting from partial knowledge of complex systems.