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For things to change, policymakers must feel the pain

A drive on one of Kenya’s highways is, we can all agree, a hair-raising experience. We have one of the world’s highest road fatality rates, for one simple reason: the roads are full of what our president fondly calls “pumbavus” who have inexplicably been allowed to drive.

So you will get pea-brained drivers coming at you from all directions: overtaking on bends and inclines; overtaking from the left; stubbornly blocking the “fast lane”; trying hair-raising manoeuvres for no reason at all. The result is daily death and destruction. In full view of the police.

I think we should adopt a measure famously suggested by American economist Armen Alchian: mounting a small spear on every steering wheel, pointed directly at the driver’s heart. Do that, and watch all that speeding and dumb driving go down overnight.

You probably laughed at that policy proposal, but there is an important principle that underlies it: people respond to incentives and penalties. Most pea-brained drivers have little sense of the risks they take by driving like damn fools; it is therefore in society’s interest to incentivize them not to do it, by making the danger very personal and immediate. A Maasai spear pointing at the chest will do the job very nicely. Average speeds will slow dramatically.

This principle can be applied to other areas of policy. The reason people misbehave is that they have incentives to do so and face little risk of meaningful penalty. The policy prescription is to reduce the incentives and amplify the penalties of bad behaviour. And particularly, make sure this applies most acutely to the policymakers themselves.

Suppose someone with supreme authority issued an edict: Each and every government vehicle is herewith banned from any form of dangerous driving, including overlapping and driving on pavements. This is a strict order, and there will be severe repercussions for any vehicle caught flouting it. The media, and the ordinary citizenry through social media, are invited to highlight any instances of abuse. Reprimands will be punitive and immediate, regardless of status.

If such a thing were done, believe me the effects would be instantaneous. For the first time, government bigwigs would have every incentive to fix the traffic problem, because for the first time they would be exposed dramatically to its consequences. You would see a flurry of projects aimed at improving and extending the roads quickly; and would see an emphatic crackdown on bad driving. Suddenly, traffic police would do what they are paid to do, and many new ideas for fixing the traffic problem would emerge.

Simply because the repercussions had been brought to bear on the Big People.

You can apply this to many other situations in life. Don’t allow important personages any extra security, and watch security improve for all. Restrict the children of all ministers and civil servants to attending government-funded schools, and watch the quality of free education rise rapidly. Force CEOs to queue up for their own products, and watch the lines reduce dramatically in a short space of time.

You get the idea. When the Big People suffer alongside the Little People, they fix problems. Otherwise they ignore them. In Kenya today we offer exemptions from ordinary pain to all our Big People. They can dodge the traffic, evade the law, be exempted from taxes, hire private security, get free health treatment abroad. Therefore they have no incentive to fix any of our entrenched problems, since they never suffer their consequences.

This is because only the Big People set the rules today. But that will change. The impact of the new constitution, combined with an ever more youthful population powered by mobile social media is going to change the game forever. Wise leaders and policymakers, please start noting the need for rules that apply to all, equally and without fear or favour.

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