Problem Perspective: When to Consider a Problem Solved

16 April 2021

Jeff McCarty

Thomas Sowell famously said, "There are no solutions, there are only trade-offs." For anyone who has been following the HCRC, you may think that this statement contradicts its vision. This quote deeply impacted me upon my first time hearing it. Not because of the potential contradiction it created against the HCRC's vision, but because of the validity of the statement itself. Though I can't speak for Sowell myself, I can discuss my understanding and perception of that statement, and I believe that sense can be made of the statement once you understand the context it exists within.


The context the quote exists within is the full scope of societal systems. When thinking about all the problems that face humanity, we must realize the connection between them. This connectivity between all the issues of society is what I believe Sowell was after. Within his words, he illustrates that we cannot become fixated on solving just one problem facing society by pouring resources into the potential solution to that problem without letting other issues fester. This balance between allocating the fixed amount of resources for solving all of humanity's problems is what I believe he meant by those trade-offs. For example, when it came to the Covid-19 problem, we saw the downsides of fixating our focus on just one problem itself. If we emphasized eliminating Covid, we saw an uptick of concern regarding the country's economy. To the same extent, though, if we put too much emphasis on boosting the economy without any care for Covid, we would see a rise in the virus.


You may be asking why I am defending this concept of trade-offs over solutions, given my prior convictions for the idea of solutions. We must ask what makes a solution a solution, or better yet, when do we consider a specific problem to be solved? Of course, this depends on the problem itself and the perspective we hold regarding that particular problem. We can use the problem of Covid-19 as an example. If we consider the problem unsolved until Covid has been wiped out from existence, then solving that problem is essentially impossible. Suppose we believe the problem is solved when the virus is under control (I.e., vaccines are widely available, hospitals aren't overrunning, the virus isn't running rampant). In that case, we can see a path to the solution. Some may say that it doesn't sound like we have proposed a solution to the problem. In which case, we are back to the perspective we have of the problem and back to Sowell's initial statement.


As a species, we will never completely eradicate all the problems facing us. Just like being a healthy individual, you cannot consider yourself healthy after one workout session, one healthy meal, or even after reaching your preferred weight goal. You must continue the hard work of working out, eating healthy, and maintaining your weight goal if you want to consider yourself fit. To the same extent, we cannot mark society's problems solved after just one attempt to solve them. We must continue the work required to ensure that the solution to that problem is solving it. When it comes to specific problems, the actual resolution may be to mitigate or minimize the threat those problems can present through policy. The ability to solve humanity's problems depends on our perspective of the problem and our view of when we consider the problem solved. If we are going to build a better society, we will have to get some perspective on our problems.

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