The simple reason there is no simple reason

David Brooks illustrates today that there's a simple, singular reason people employ the oversimplified cause argument scheme:

Over the course of my career, I’ve covered a number of policy failures. When the Soviet Union fell, we sent in teams of economists, oblivious to the lack of social trust that marred that society. While invading Iraq, the nation’s leaders were unprepared for the cultural complexities of the place and the psychological aftershocks of Saddam’s terror.

We had a financial regime based on the notion that bankers are rational creatures who wouldn’t do anything stupid en masse. For the past 30 years we’ve tried many different ways to restructure our educational system — trying big schools and little schools, charters and vouchers — that, for years, skirted the core issue: the relationship between a teacher and a student.

I’ve come to believe that these failures spring from a single failure: reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature. We have a prevailing view in our society — not only in the policy world, but in many spheres — that we are divided creatures. Reason, which is trustworthy, is separate from the emotions, which are suspect. Society progresses to the extent that reason can suppress the passions.

That simple reason is that we believe some kind of Brooksian dichotomy: people are either x or y, etc.  My question: so we've been making dichotomies (I don't think we have–Brooks has), and this is too simple, and this is the simple reason why there is no simple reason.  This refutes itself.

2 thoughts on “The simple reason there is no simple reason”

  1. Hi John,  Two brief thoughts in defense of Brooks.
    First, I wonder if Brooks' statement is a statement on a second-order. Call it SP:
    The simple problem with these identifications of first-order political problems is that they are all identifications of simple problems (or based on the presumption that all the problems are simple). 

    Because SP is not a statement identifying first-order political problems (but a statement about problems with identification of political problems), it does not refer to itself.  So it's not self-refuting.  But now, I take it, your point is that he should learn the lesson on the first-order and see (at least inductively) that it will manifest itself on the second-order.  I suppose the problem there is that the identification of a problem as simple on that order (as SP runs, we have a habit of wanting the solutions to be simple) itself is simple.  But I don't know it that yet refutes itself, because so far it is only false that all problems are simple problems, not true that all problems are not simple.  Only with the latter is it self-refuting.

    Second, SP does have first-order backing, as it depends on the thought that all those first-order identifications were false.  And so there is a first-order commitment: that those problems were not simple.  But identifying that is simple. 
    Self-refutation is, perhaps, too strong.  But I do share your consternation, as there does seem a positive tension there.  I wonder if there is a kind of implicit directive Brooks' observations implicate, and then we get the problem….  Oh, and these thoughts didn't turn out brief… sorry!

  2. I see your point about the self-refuting bit.  But I didn't mean that in a strong or technical sense.  Perhaps we have a soft version of that.

    I don't agree as to the order question.  I think we have a more straightforward single-order issue here.  Our failure at policies x or y is that we're overly simplistic in our view of human nature, which, I would agree, is an obviously oversimplified view of the causes phenomena in question, the very thing he's complaining about. 

    Besides, I wouldn't agree that the causes of the bank failure are anything close to being explained by Brooks's overly simplistic view of human nature.

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