Journal of Forest Economics > Vol 9 > Issue 2

Editorial - On Nobel laureates and the study of policy instruments

Editorial article

Bram Filius
Suggested Citation
Bram Filius (2003), "Editorial - On Nobel laureates and the study of policy instruments", Journal of Forest Economics: Vol. 9: No. 2, pp 71-73.

Publication Date: 0/0/2003
© 0 2003 Bram Filius


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Hundred years ago, on April 12, 1903, Jan Tinbergen was born. He was, together with Ragnar Frish, the first Nobel laureate in economics. He received in 1969 the Nobel Prize for “constructing mathematical models relating strategic economic relations, and then to specify these quantitatively with the help of statistics”. During the Tinbergenweek last April, the Erasmus University Rotterdam and the Rotterdam School of Economics have honoured Tinbergen (1903-1994) as a man of ideals, as can be read on the website Among the activities during this week was a scientific congress, a colloquium with Nobel Prize winners and the presentation of the first copy of the first part of the biography by the author, Albert Jolink, to the children and grandchildren of Jan Tinbergen. As far as I know, Tinbergen has not directly/explicitly been occupied with forest economics. This in contrast to another Nobel laureate in economics Samuelson, who had a contribution to the above-mentioned colloquium, with his article “Economics of forestry in an evolving society”. This certainly does not mean that Tinbergen's work is not of importance for forest economics. He is one of the founders of econometrics, which has been applied so abundantly in forest economics last decades. The development of econometrics can be considered as necessary for his work on economic policy. This work is well-known from his books “On the Theory of Economic Policy” (1952) and “Economic Policy, Principles and Design” (1956, both published by North-Holland, Amsterdam). One of the characteristics of this work is that a distinction is made between targets and (policy) instruments. With the help of a model, we can know to which extent we have to manipulate one or more instruments if we establish one or more targets. Samuelson has also given a substantial contribution to a theory of economic policy which is characterised by, and that is what I would like to emphasise, thinking in terms of what is known as a goal-means relationship; the goals are targets or objectives, the means are instruments. That instruments should be chosen by policy makers that optimise the set of objectives.

Political scientists could have the propensity to label this approach as the traditional instrumental approach or as the “instrumentalist” school. Scholars of this school of instrument study and policy makers “… endorse a select few instruments to which they ascribe all power” and consider “… effectiveness as the only yardstick” by which to measure the suitability of a policy instrument, as has been described in the discussion of some schools of thought within the area of instrument study in the work of Peters and Van Nispen c. s. In the traditional instrumental approach first the targets are determined and then the instruments are selected. Other points of criticism of the instrumental approach and the “instrumentalist” school are the assumed goal-means relationship and the little attention that is paid to the policy process and “politics”. The goal-means relationship is assumed to be decisive for the selection of the policy instrument. Doubts about the usefulness of a goal-means relationship include the difficulty to establish goals and the possible change of goals during the policy process. Also the goals of forest policy can easily change as can be observed in the last decade(s) in many countries. In the Netherlands, an increase of timber production was still in the recent past a very important objective of forest policy. In the Dutch forest policy plan of 1993, policy aimed at an increase of the self-sufficiency rate from about 10 percent, the rate at that time, to 25 percent in 2050. Since 1993 forest policy has become much more integrated into nature conservation policy and shortly after the publication of the plan, the timber production goal had less attention: currently no target self-sufficiency rate is pursued.

In addition to these doubts, several authors in the work of Peters and Van Nispen c. s. assert that the emphasis in the selection of instruments is not on effectiveness. As a result “The shift away from the traditional approach to policy instruments has important consequences for the focus of study… goal attainment is less of an issue”. That could be a pity for forest economists, because the effectiveness of forest policy instruments is an important issue in research. A lot of time and money has been spend on the development of a methodology for the estimation of the effectiveness of instruments in forestry. Many authors have used the methods Tinbergen has handed.

In spite of this asserted decrease of interest in effectiveness, the Dutch government has recently founded the Nature Policy Assessment Office. The establishment of this office finds its basis in the 1998 Nature Preservation Act. The task of this office includes the evaluation of policy that has been implemented and providing knowledge on the effectiveness and efficiency of prospective policy measures. The question is of course within which methodological framework effectiveness will be studied. According to Peters and Van Nispen c. s., a contextual approach should be preferred; such an approach includes contextual variables, pays attention to the policy process (including implementation) and to institutional aspects. Reading again the work of Tinbergen, it is striking that he paid already so much attention to context and institutional aspects. The conclusion of Peters and Van Nispen c. s. suggests that the study of forest policy instruments should develop a methodology which results in embedding effectiveness and other issues in such a contextual approach.

Bram Filius

Agricultural University, Wageningen

Associate editor