Home The Solution is the Problem
Home The Solution is the Problem

The Solution is the Problem

The problem with our problems is usually their solution. If we were to take a closer look at many of our problems, it would turn out that many of them are actually solutions that were meant to solve those very problems. Our War on Poverty has spread poverty. Our attempts at fighting racism have perpetuated it. Our campaigns for energy efficiency invariably waste more energy than they save.

We tried promoting populism to solve terrorism in the Middle East and got even more terrorism for our troubles. The more resources we put into education, the more the educational system runs backward. Every attempt at creating jobs seems to vaporize more jobs than it creates.

Solving problems isn't a bad thing, but the place to start is at the problem, not the solution.

Listen to enough celebrities at fundraisers, politicians thumping podiums with manicured fingernails and thought leaders spinning their little grey wheels and you notice that they assume that the solution is obvious, self-evident and will work. And that's where problems come from.

The more problems we have, the more addicted to solutions we become. But progressives forget what the pre-moderns knew, that many problems have no solutions. Other problems can be ameliorated, but not solved. Life is still tragic. Bad things will happen to good people. Sometimes we can wipe a disease off the map, but more often our solutions trade simple problems for more complex ones.

Human nature, unlike a virus, has no solution. It's hard enough to keep up with a mutating cellular organism, but trying to outpace shifting human motivations is a totalitarian loser's game. It's why social problems have the fewest solutions except distributing more time, more wealth and more resources wholesale through a general step forward and waiting for people to make use of them.

Social solutions are all about social engineering masses of people on the assumption that they will behave in a predictable way over extended periods of time even when they are aware of what is being done to them and even when the conditions of the experiment come apart as your $600 million website not only doesn't lure in the cool kids to sign up, but works about as well as a plugging your toaster into hope and change and waiting for it to magically do something.

None of these gimmicks work really well which is why most aspiring progressive social engineers settle down to a humbler rackets of six-figure salaries at a non-profit that's there to solve a problem that won't be solved or a consulting gig manipulating billionaires who want to solve a social problem like gun violence or obesity before they die and think that it can be done by manipulating the masses.

For sincere problem solvers, the place to start is by examining the problem. That means setting aside the claims that science has already proven X, Y and Z. Science actually proves surprisingly few things outside of an episode of CSI. What science does is tie together working assumptions into a productive workflow. This is much more useful when it comes to producing a smartphone using science, than using a bunch of unduplicated studies with more statistical gimmickry than a political consultant's poll to tackle overeating, drug abuse or risky behavior by teenagers.

Bacteria is a lot less self-aware and less complex than teenagers. It isn't going to change its worldview tomorrow because of a new trend sweeping the nation. It also isn't going to be primed to give the answers that get you the grant by your research assistant who never learned to spell ethics.

Some problems are unsolvable. Others shouldn't be solved. Think about that bookcase you want to move to the other side of the room. What are the odds that the thin pasteboard is finally going to give way and spill all those medical journals all over your rug if you try to do it? A lot of problems are like that. Tackling them sounds good at a fundraiser, but then it breaks your furniture.

Tackling the social problems of low income families broke up those families and made them much more dependent on the social tacklers. A few generations later, the broken family and dependency had made all the original problems even worse and much more unsolvable. It shouldn't have been that surprising an outcome. Taking animals out of the wild and breaking their chain of life strategy transmission leaves them unable to survive. It works that way with people too.

Solving problems generates new problems. People are complex and their complexity generates problems. Even actual solutions create new problems. What makes these solutions actual is that the new problems are several degrees of severity less than the original problem. Plentiful food means childhood obesity. Cures for diseases lead to increased longevity and strain on the social system.

Thinking ahead can head off solution problems. The problem is that solutioneers rarely like to think of problems. They like to skip ahead to practicing their Nobel Prize acceptance speeches.

The progressive mindset treats solutions as a matter of faith. If you assume that society is always on an upward track like a roller coaster that never stops climbing into the sky, then you don't worry that your solutions will generate future problems. Thinking that way is blasphemy against progress. And if you aren't a 1920s progressive with shiny hair and a great deal of confidence in a future where radio pills are an entire meal and a vast government bureaucracy will end poverty for good, but a 1970s progressive with a necklace of Made in China tribal beads and a misplaced confidence that the only reason that problems don't get solved is that people don't care enough to solve them, then you can't even process the idea that hugging a problem to death might not be the solution that is needed.

The 1920s progressive was the product of a rational culture. His modern descendants confuse being rational with being obtuse, snarky, outraged and any of the other phases of the progressive moon. That leaves them completely unable to solve anything and utterly unaware of their own inability to do anything more complex than edit a Republican politician's Wikipedia entry to reflect a gaffe distributed by a Think Progress' mailing list and call it a day for the progressive movement.

Instead of solving anything, they declare social problems solved. Then when the social problems have gotten so bad that the voters turn to a Republican to solve them, the progressives begin churning out articles, books and documentaries about how the Republican deregulation of whatever messy system they set up to solve old problems by creating more of them wrecked everything.

Crime was solved, until the Republicans came in and began fighting it. Poverty was solved, until Reagan got in. Race relations were great, until Nixon. Every disease was cured until Bush failed to increase NHS funding in line with the growth curve of the economy. This comforting hateful nonsense frees progressives from ever questioning the progress that they have made.

Progressives are forever fixing things and conservatives are forever breaking them because they hate progress. The only way to make progress is by eliminating all opposition. It worked in the USSR where the authorities spent three generations blaming every one of their failures on a vast army of saboteurs working for Great Britain, Leon Trotsky and the remnants of the Czarist regime.

Ask a modern progressive to name what his politicians did wrong and the usual answer is that they weren't radical enough. ObamaCare was bad because it wasn't Single Payer. If it had been Single Payer, it would have been bad because of medical tourism. If a giant barbed wire fence had been set up and all the doctors rounded up into it, the complaint would be that the fence wasn't electrified.

Like the guy trying to fix a television set with a hammer and twelve beers, the progressive review board's conclusion is always that he didn't hit the broken pieces of the television hard enough.

This same solutionist mindset doomed the USSR to wallowing in its own economic filth because it could rarely work its way backward from its latest mess. Instead it found a few scapegoats to shoot and went on marching forward over a cliff until everyone got tired of the whole thing and decided to go back to an oligarchy with fewer rules and better movies.

Those who believe in the solution can never accept that they are the problem. That they aren't smart enough to outsmart the rest of the population and that they should stop trying before they make their problematic solutions unsolvable. The solution is more than just something they do, it's an act of faith in a rational future. But there is nothing rational about problem solving as a progressive act of faith.

Solutions and problems aren't polar opposites like heaven and hell or Beethoven and the sound a broken fax machine makes when you try to call it; they're entangled bits of each other like a Rubik's Cube. The solution is present in a problem and the problem in a solution. That is all the truer when the problem is people, rather than the alignment of colored squares.

Solving a human problem isn't a transformation, but a realignment, and there is rarely more than a thin line between the problem state and the solution state. We are never far from the problems of the last century or the last millennium. Like yesterday's hunger pangs, we may have forgotten the raw experience of living that way, but there is very little objectively that separates the solutions we live from the problems that they solved. It is best to remember that the problems of human nature today were the problems of human nature yesterday and will be the problems of human nature tomorrow.


  1. Anonymous26/1/14

    Well Daniel how many more shootings do you want before America cops itself on?


  2. Anonymous26/1/14

    Very clever, again...

  3. Recently I had an opportunity to converse with a friend, who spent not a few of his forty-six years as a reporter/journalist/broadcaster following police around on their tough urban beats. There isn’t much that he hasn’t seen while covering elections, politicians, murders, and heinous crimes of all genre. In spite of our vastly different backgrounds we share similar attitudes about the current conditions of the world, though my slant is likely more theologically based, but regardless how our conversations begin they nearly always end with both of us commiserating over our distress regarding the things we see happening that we cannot stop or change.

    We are both bibliophiles so I shared with him the last book I have read, Life At The Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass, by Theodore Dalrymple, “...filled with poignant stories of women and men trapped in destructive behaviors and environments, this volume puts forth a vision of the modern world and of intellectualized modernism as hell but offers few concrete or theoretical solutions. ...The fault, Dalrymple asserts, is not bad environments, but a pervasive liberal view and agenda that creates ‘passive, helpless victims,’ encourages the idea that the acceptance of ‘unconscious motivations for one's acts’ obviates personal responsibility, and the ‘widespread acceptance of social determinism.’”

    I admitted that it left me feeling like the proverbial deer frozen in place staring helplessly at the headlights of the coming impact. I knew, based on our previous conversations, I could discuss this with my friend and that he would understand. There aren’t, after all, many who do or who even wish to know about such a downer prognosis. In fact, for the most part, people don’t want to hear anything that even remotely hints that things aren’t going to get better and even less do they wish to be told that life as we know it is likely to get much worse quite soon. Everywhere.

    Before we ended the call, we agreed with equal desperation that humanity is on the brink of unspeakable change, change so devastating, so evil, so global, there is hardly a lexicon to describe it. He told me, in all the years he covered the daily news, he has never witnessed more insanity, rampant corruption, altered reality, miscreant behavior, and treachery, within society in general and government in particular. He declared that if conditions continued in the current downward spiral he didn’t know how he could remain in this country. While I stopped short of asking where he thought, in this reprobated world, there is a sane place to go, I did posit that it seemed to me that we have gone past the point of turnaround, this time, and that there is nothing we can do to stop, or even slow down, the coming train wreck.

    I didn’t tell him, from my perspective, which is rooted in the metaphysical, that the message has evolved from ‘get it or don’t’, to ‘prepare to stand’. I’m not sure he would have understood that, at least not in the way I meant it.

    As crazy as the world has ever been, this time we’ve outdone ourselves and the only solution is complete reboot. I can’t want to know what that means.

    Sorry this comment is so long. I just had to say it.

  4. Anonymous26/1/14

    Mr Greenfield......now I know how most of the American people felt when they read Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" in the early 1770's......Thanks and best....

  5. Clean water. Sanitation. Roads. Human tranquility requires these three. Every political "solution" after that is just meddlesome.

  6. Anonymous26/1/14

    I am now an old man. When I was a boy on a dirt-poor farm in Wisconsin in the 1940s, my entire family could afford Major Medical insurance and good medical and dental care. In 2014, we can't. What changed?

    During World War II, the government solved the problem of rising prices for goods and labor with wage and price controls. Companies responded by paying employees with medical insurance. With a third party paying, the price of medical care rose faster until it became to expensive for people to pay out of their pockets.

    The government solved that problem with medicaid, medicare, and regulations that required hospitals to treat everyone. That pushed prices even higher.

    Now no one can afford good medical care out of their own pockets. Obamacare is supposed to solve that problem, but it destroyed the individual insurance people already had. Next year it will destroy the small company insurance market. The "Affordable" Care Act pushed insurance prices up an average of 46%.

    What's next? The progressives are already lusting for Nationalized Health Care. Then doctors will be slaves of the government and no one will have health care unless some anonymous bureaucrat wants them to have it.

    May I please go back to the 1940s before the government solved the problem?

  7. Mortis26/1/14

    I have always said the Democrats are the party of unintended consequences (esp. after they were taken over by progressives). It makes me happy to know that there are more of us out there, shaking our heads at the latest progressive "plan".

    Love the blog btw, it has become a regular stopping point for me now - keep up the good thoughts

  8. Anonymous26/1/14

    Daniel writes this analogy. Smile at its perfection. Be cheerful for its revealed insight :

    "Solutions and problems aren't polar opposites like heaven and hell or Beethoven and the sound a broken fax machine makes when you try to call it; they're entangled bits of each other like a Rubik's Cube. The solution is present in a problem and the problem in a solution. That is all the truer when the problem is people, rather than the alignment of colored squares."


  9. BLNelson26/1/14

    The first thing to do is to determine if there is really a problem...

  10. Anonymous26/1/14

    I believe that Daniel in one of his articles stated that the essence of freedom for the individual was to be left alone. Unfortunately politicians of all ilk feel it to be their responsibility to do something for their constiuents whereas if they simply fixed the roads and plowed the streets of snow we would all be living a better and happier life.

  11. Anonymous26/1/14

    I love your blog and must read you everyday. I actually learn something new, or a new way to think something. (Unlike most of the rest of the Web, except for econtalk.org, of course. ) Thanks for that! You give me courage.
    Texas Mom, BS Economics.

  12. Texas Mom, thank you, that's the most important thing

  13. Liberals try to create a society where people CAN'T commit crimes. Conservatives create a society where people WON'T commit crimes. Although not perfect, the latter works well. The former, being further from perfect, obviously does not work.

  14. Anonymous26/1/14

    "It is best to remember that the problems of human nature today were the problems of human nature yesterday and will be the problems of human nature tomorrow."

    This sentence is the essence of all problems.

    The solution has to come from the individual. Individuals make up society. When individual minds and hearts are ruled by the dark side of human nature, that corruption spills out into society. The modern world has no time for inner reflection which, on an individual basis, is what is desperately needed today.


  15. Anonymous26/1/14

    In reply to Meema: thank you for an excellent post to an excellent article. I too, am a fan of Theodore Dalrymple and have read him for many years now. He eventually gave up living in England and moved to the south of France because he had become so downhearted by the conditions in his native country. Who knows, he might have moved back by now given that his new home was probably no better than his old one.

    I moved from Canada to the U.S. for personal reasons after having lived there for the majority of my life. Unfortunately it was just when this country had fallen into the abyss of this administration. As depressing as it can be here at times, there is no elsewhere that is better. Despite Obamacare, which hopefully can be dismantled, the medical care I have received here is far superior to what I would have been subject to in Canada and for that I am thankful. What surprises me is how ignorant so many Americans I have spoken to, are about how mediocre and sometimes deadly government healthcare can be. The media here has done a very good job of keeping the populations in the dark.

    In these terrible times it is important to keep your family close and retain your. principles and values in your own personal life. It's also important to stand and fight because this country is worth it. I know it sounds very Mary Poppins but what is the alternative?

  16. Anonymous26/1/14

    Hello Daniel, yes the smirking gnostics will continue with futile and counter productive attempts to solve problems no one asked them to. That in itself is the biggest part of all our problems. There's no cure for the impertinent and impatient visions of this cult. Their immanent vision is clear but the way to it is blurry. As they step on, knock over a push aside real people to impose whatever salvation theory is trending at present we can only pray they never succeed. They are to be pitied as pathetic parodies of Judeo-Christian sensibilities, forever endeavouring to seek salvation by human will alone.

    PS: Have adopted the term "smirking gnostic" not as an ad hominem but rather a form of signal recognition - we all know the type, when you see that smirk while refuting their ideas with facts (global warming) its likely that person is unconsciously gnostic.

  17. @Anon -

    I highly recommend Dalrymple’s books, as depressing as they are, still they are like looking at a script that the US is now following. What has happened in the UK began with nationalized medicine after WW2, following with nationalized education in the 60s and topping off the trifecta with liberal-brained welfare. Now, in the UK, there is a third generation of dumbed down, brutal, useless dependents whose only contribution to society is to provide job security to bureaucrats.

    To illustrate Daniel’s thesis, the solution to the problem of creating an entire irresponsible population that does not work is to double and triple up on the government agencies to deal with the problem. In case no one has noticed, the prison system in this country has become big big business. It's actually better referred to as an industry. Why would such a business, that provides so many jobs be the least bit interested in reducing crime?

    I will never give up on my country. But neither will I pretend that what is happening now is just a low ebb. Totalitarianism knows stealth mode and gains ground while the consumers are distracted with consuming.

    I also highly recommend Alexander Boot’s The Crisis Behind Our Crisis. Reading both in succession takes fortitude.

  18. Anonymous26/1/14

    January after Janus the roman God of the endings and the beginnigs is a good moment to remember Rothenberg´s Janusian thinking, the stuff of the geniality. Some examples are capitalism´s creative destruction, relativity theory of movement (sth. moves and stands at the same time), ‘si vis pacem para bellum’ and so on. Now leave it in the hands of pothead leftists and they will come up with stupid oxymorons i.e. sin is virtue, destroy your country is loving it, you name it… always pretending to be deep thinking. They know that in the worst case scenario they can fool republicans voters to pay the bill for the mess they created.

  19. Anonymous26/1/14

    "" May I please go back to the 1940s before the government solved the problem? ""

    Yes, but, please this time, don't let them besmirch or destroy the John Birch Society - it's proven that there were plenty o' commies around to spread disinformation through their mal-appropriated "rights-filled" propaganda.

    Oh, and make sure all candidates for elected public office are of the highest moral character -- John Adams said so.

    And Greenfield, get away from my 12 pack - it's all i got left.

    Better yet, i'll snap open a cold one for you, if you'll enlighten us as to the living conditions in a bloomberg-approved studio apart (14x30ft) in a stack-and-pack, obummer-approved, ethnicly-justified residential zone. You know, just a short walk from the hi-speed rail stations with a whole archipeligo of extra small closets.

    [[ Dehydration Party, please. Table for 40 million ]]


  20. Once again, a stand-up bit of writing. One very minor nit that detracts from neither style nor sybstance. 10th para from bottom: "...your solutions will general future problems..." should likely read "...your solutions will generate future problems...".

  21. There is a distinction between conditions and problems. Conditions are something you have to live with. Problems have solutions. As an engineer, I consider it my job to turn conditions into problems. However, I'm well aware that some conditions will never be turned into problems, and every effort to do so only makes things worse.

  22. Naresh Krishnamoorti26/1/14

    Daniel, what you are against, and what we should all be against, is imposing an A PRIORI ideological solution on a problem, instead of finding the solution organically from a close examination of the problem itself. This is an error that goes back at least to Rousseau and the French enlightenment. In foreign policy, a classic example is the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928. Instead of seeking to avert war by examining and mitigating the causes of particular conflicts, which is a hard and time-consuming thing to do, the signatories of the Treaty sought to outlaw war itself. An even better example is Bush's conduct of the Iraq War. Instead of solving the particular problem of Saddam posing a threat to the region, Bush sought to impose an a priori ideological solution -- democracy as the panacea of all the world's ills -- in the hope of building stability in the whole region, without considering any historical contexts involved. As a result, the problems in Iraq and the region have become worse than ever.

  23. Wombat26/1/14

    Y'all got on this boat for different reasons, but y'all come to the same place. So now I'm asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as I know anything, I know this - they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They'll swing back to the belief that they can make people... better. And I do not hold to that. So no more runnin'. I aim to misbehave. -Capt. Malcolm Reynolds, Serenity.

  24. Anonymous26/1/14

    This blog has really grown on me. I must admit, I'm going to have to chew on this particular post for a while, it's a rather unique take. dr

  25. ericcs27/1/14

    The concept underlying all this is called optimality, and every good (I stress good) engineer knows about it. In the real world there are no perfect solutions, only optimal ones. Since humans are even less predictable than widgets, any attempt to impose a perfect solution for a societal problem will only end in failure. Only in the mind of the leftist zealot does there exist a perfection about what to do. However it is nothing more than a grotesque fantasyland, aided and abetted by a refusal to obtain real-world feedback and thus see the misery and chaos that actually ensues. This is the leftist secular religion, i.e., the 'Cathedral', and is now finally being realized as such by their awakening opposition. I just hope it's not too late.

  26. Anonymous27/1/14

    Speaking of CSI. On a recent (2013) episode of NCIS, Abby, (the Goth, Science Nerd, who is a genius at every form of science and computers you can make up) is asked by the Director to help his daughter with her science project. What is it going to be? Abby tells the Director, it will be "The effects of Global Warming on Chesapeake Bay." Done deal, not even Climate Change, no possible explanations of what else may be going on to explain any changes in the Bay. Abby has just affirmed that Global Warming is a fact. Yes, children who are maybe 8 or 9 or even 11 or 12, Global Warming is a certainty, and it is a HUGE problem. So HUGE that we have to find ways to fix it. What? You are only a small child who can hardly contemplate the enormity of the universe? What? The grown ups in your life are complicit in scaring the life out of you?
    As you can see.....one of my pet peeves.....telling small powerless children that the world is going to end in an apocalypse if they don't do something. GRRRRR!!!!

  27. DenisO27/1/14

    The Founders, believe it or not, understood that solving problems was best done by those closest to them, -the States (and Cities, -parts of the States).
    The Central Government wanted the power, so it said it could fix our problems, and the State politicians said "Great, you take care of them, and we don't have to work on them, anymore." The People never complained because they neither foresaw the consequences or understood why they would follow. The fools in D.C. are concentrating a couple of generations of consequences on us in a very short time, and the People are feeling progressing pain. It takes pain to get their attention, and Obama's Leftist ambitions are so intense that he is undermining the agenda of the Left, hopefully to a fatal end.
    The solution has to be returning responsibility to the States. Some will be good at solving eternal human problems, others will fail, but there will be competition. People are showing us, today, that they will leave "progressive" States and move to freedom, as soon as they can. That movement stimulates real reform. The battle will be to return responsibility to the States.

  28. Rich W27/1/14

    Daniel you are now tied with Caroline Glick as my favorite writers on the planet. I will never let you surpass her because of all the comfort she's given to me over the last 10 years from what's going on in Israel and in the Middle East. You know that this is the greatest compliment you can get. I'm sure you love her too.
    Your frustrations with human nature and its inability to change the course of history because of the herd mentality is felt by me also. Unfortunately it's going to take a war and a depression to get people thinking right again. But as you know when the good times return people start feeling good again and the same cycle will repeat itself as it has throughout history. It's not something to look forward to no matter how much we want the right values leading us forward.
    When people start getting downright mean and are more interested in protecting what they have we'll see changes.
    The depths of your thinking process is way beyond most humans. I'm sure everyone on here is so grateful that you express those thoughts for us to suck in and share. It is as comforting as CG's brain but more time consuming since every line of yours' is so deep and you produce so frequently!!!!!!
    I think that everyone here who paid attention in School and understands the importance of the principles of the constitution, bible and Torah gets it. Because of this we are the most freedom loving people in the USA and we are systemically incapable of any prejudices because the values in those documents are in our blood. All of us here would just about 100% agree on right and wrong for just about everything.

  29. Rich W27/1/14

    I meant to post my comment under the Ghost Ship article. Could you please move it over there where it makes sense?

  30. "The Solution is the Problem" --- I'm not sure why, but the liberal agenda reminds me of "The Island of Dr. Moreau"

  31. Anonymous28/1/14

    "Advances are made by answering questions. Discoveries are made by questioning answers." Bernard Haisch
    If leftists' answers were to be questioned, they'd be exposed as phony, thus it must be prevented at all costs. Benefits don´t pay iphones, bimers and all the expensive toys progressives so dearly love.

  32. Discoveries also unpend comforting worldviews which is what the left really is.

  33. Anonymous19/2/14

    I missed this one last month. You've out-done yourself with it, Daniel.


Post a Comment

You May Also Like