Complicated and Complex Problems In The Conservative Heart

Simpsons Football

I just read Arthur Brooks’ The Conservative Heart  and there is an excellent metaphor (page 66) on the difference between problems that can be solved and those that can’t.

LBJ’s intentions were certainly good, and the goals he envisioned were noble ones. The fatal problem was his methods. They were rooted in a profound misunderstanding of what government could and could not do. The failure of Johnson’s policies to achieve his stated ends stemmed from a failure to recognize a crucial distinction: the difference between complicated problems and complex problems.

Complicated problems are extremely difficult to understand, but they can be resolved with sufficient money and brainpower. And once you find the solution, the problem is permanently solved. You can replicate the solution over and over with a high degree of success. Designing a jet engine is a complicated problem. Figuring out how to build the first jet engine took sophisticated tools, computing ability, and expert engineers. But once engineers figured out how to do it-and designed a jet engine that worked-they could replicate the process and make jet engines routinely.

Complex problems are very different. They initially seem simpler to understand but can actually never be “solved” once and for all. One example is a football game. You know exactly what success looks like it-it’s when your team wins. (In my case, it’s when the Seattle Seahawks win.) But there are so many trillions of combinations of things that can happen on the playing field, so many variables and ambiguities, that even the best data and strategies are dwarfed by the uncertainty that remains.

Liberals will try to respond to complex problems as if these are easily solvable, and this leads to further problems, as well as wasted effort.

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at
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