March 26, 2014
Policymakers should use skepticism and humility when designing social programs and should avoid one-size-fits all solutions, Heritage Foundation experts Stuart Butler and David Muhlhausen write in National Affairs.
That’s because the evidence shows it’s very hard to reproduce successful pilot programs on a national scale:
[T]he task of mimicking and scaling up programs that work is not so straightforward. Success is never a simple matter of easily traceable cause and effect, and even the people who have achieved a breakthrough often cannot pinpoint exactly what worked and why. Social outcomes have an impossibly complex array of causes, and the circumstances that characterize one place are rarely identical — and are often not even very similar — to those found elsewhere. A seemingly successful preschool program in Chicago may fail in Atlanta, even if it is reproduced virtually identically, because of differences, both large and small, between the two cities.
Head Start is a case in point. The early-education program showed promise during 1960s trials and it was quickly rolled out nationally, but the first rigorous study of its effectiveness—run decades later—was disappointing.
Butler and Muhlhausen urge lawmakers to avoid one-size-fits-all programs and instead to base solutions on local, decentralized knowledge. Do you agree with this approach?