10 February 2016

The 'root causes' fallacy

The 'root causes' fallacy is my explanation for why we don't really do much to solve such seemingly intractable problems as violent political conflict (war and civil war) or other complex social and environmental problems, such as crime or drug abuse. For historical reasons, policymaking is almost entirely a top-down activity. Politicians and public servants see a problem, then decide what needs to be done about it. If they aren't certain what needs to be done, either they guess at the root causes, or they ignore the problem. What they are not comfortable doing (yet) is to contract out the finding of solutions to the private sector. And finding solutions to a problem does not necessarily mean that we have to find its root causes - which can take decades or, indeed, be impossible. This, from the Economist, writing about data-based models:
Too many things tend to happen at once to isolate cause and effect: liberalised trade might boost growth, or liberalisation might be the sort of thing that governments do when growth is rising, or both liberalisation and growth might follow from some third factor. And there are too many potential influences on growth for economists to know whether a seemingly strong relationship between variables is real or would disappear if they factored in some other relevant titbit, such as the wages of Canadian lumberjacks. A mean feat, 'The Economist', 9 January
When it doesn't supply an easy excuse for inaction, this supposed need to identify root causes before doing anything can be catastrophically costly when mistakes are made: policies are put in place that cannot easily be reversed. Take climate change: our governments have decided that they know the cause of climate change is anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. They know, or act as if they know, exactly the relative contributions of each of these gases to climate change. But there are at least as many variables affecting the climate as there are 'potential influences on growth', and that makes a nonsense of trying to implement policies whose success depends entirely on their correct identification. But the juggernaut has begun its downhill movement: climate change policy has led to the creation of organizations powerful enough to oppose removal of their funding and even to distort facts that might threaten their existence.

My solution: target outcomes, rather than the alleged means of achieving them. Instead of targeting climate change, target for reduction the negative impacts of adverse climate events on human, animal and plant life. Instead of trying (or pretending to try) to stop the civil war in Syria, target for reduction the numbers of people killed and made homeless in that country. Complex social and environnmental problems require diverse, adaptive approaches for their solution. They don't require that we identify their real or mythical 'root causes' before doing anything. By contracting out the achievement of solutions to a motivated coalition of holders of Social Policy Bonds, we could bypass the supposed need to identify root causes and instead concentrate on finding solutions to the problems they create.

For more about my approach to climate change see other posts on this blog, or this essay. For more about my approach to achieving peace, follow this link

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