“To every complex problem there is a simple solution and it is always wrong”.
These words from Bob Dick , one of my early University lecturers still rattle through my mind. I’m guessing he was quoting. It has proven to be a robust statement. Our social and political issues are often complex and the politicians, shock jocks and others offer us solutions. And the solutions are very often simple or simplified. Usually there are descriptions attached such as ‘common sense’, ‘pragmatic’ and even ‘simple’ or ‘real’.
‘Real Solutions’ was a campaign slogan for a recently elected Australian Coalition Government. It certainly sounds a lot better than ‘Untested Solutions’, ‘Conservative Solutions’, ‘Ideological Solutions’ or ‘Solutions with side effects we haven’t thought of yet!’. All this would be fine if social and political issues were algebra. Algebra has a ‘solution’. A chemistry problem can have a solution. An engineering problem can have a solution. These ‘solutions’ can be very complicated but they have certainties and until applied in the real world, no unintended side effects. Yet despite all the evidence and the obvious logical flaws, people continue to believe in ‘solutions’ and very often ‘simple and seductive solutions’ to complex social and economic issues. Of course if there were ‘Real Solutions’ to our social issues then we would not need politics, just rational methods for determining the ‘solution’. In politics having the ‘solution’ is code for ideology (See Ideology) while pragmatism could be seen as a choice about which negative consequences one is prepared to live with.
All social ‘solutions’ have unintended consequences – some positive and some not so. Replacing one ideology with another can see a reduction in the unintended consequences caused by the first, soon to be replaced by the consequences of the second. This reinforces the view of the second group that their ideology is correct. In politics and corporations it a good ‘solution’does (a lot) more good than harm and is even better if we can choose to ignore any harm. Ignoring harm is easiest when you can’t see the harm and the harm is done to somebody other than ‘us’ e.g. the pollution created by the consumption of Asian manufactured goods isn’t in Australia and their low labour standards aren’t here and they are not ‘us’… so let’s just ignore that. Yet, invariably ‘the solution’ will need refreshing or replacing at some time. This is because the side effects will become the problem or the problem reshapes itself. The Chinese population will grow tired of the pollution and health problems and demand better. This inevitability will lead to internal political change and will change trading relationships etcetera and perhaps sooner than is anticipated.
The point is that there is actually nothing wrong with acknowledging the complexity of a situation, taking the best actions that can be agreed and monitoring the side effects to decide which will be paid attention to. How much harm you are prepared to accept becomes a moral, ethical and practical question. Corporations including corporate government like to avoid moral and ethical questions in favor of legal questions. That is, “Is what we are doing legal?”
On Solutions and Complexity
The vast majority of people including many politicians and corporate leaders seem intolerant of complexity. Eyes glaze over easily. Hence the popularity of bullet point diagnosis and ‘simple solutions’. Little of what is written here will actually be read. I persist regardless!
Paraphrasing an Einstein quote – it is our task to make things as simple as possible not simpler than they are.