Limitation #5: Simplistic Explanations of Problems and Solutions
When goods or services are marketed to the masses, a good marketer will not put too much detail in its marketing message. For example, a shampoo manufacturer will not entice buyers by emphasizing its chemical composition, but instead focus on how attractive you will be if you use this shampoo. A car manufacturer will try to sell you on year-to-year reliability of its cars, not the engineering decisions made to create that reliability. Beer companies are famous for creating an illusion that a certain lifestyle will happen if you drink their beer; the taste of the beer — or even the food safety processes taken to make this beer — are unimportant in these commercials.
To market themselves, political parties have to take complicated issues and present them in such a way that they are attractive to the mass media and comprehensible to much of the citizenry. The result is to simplify almost every issue almost to the point where it no longer represents the truth. And it is from these simplifications where we average citizens formulate our opinions, which, directly or indirectly, affect who gets elected and later makes decisions in government.
Many political scientists seem to believe that simplifying complicated issues is a normal part of democracy. In this context, politicians who are good at this task have more right to be in government than those who are not.
But below I have summarized how the various complicated issues facing us are often simplified in the political process. I think most readers can categorize many statements made by elected public officials into these simplifications:
- Political Correctness: “Anyone who is for / against this particular solution is either incompetent or uncompassionate.”
- Ultimate Consequence: “This decision will prevent / facilitate our civilization’s descent into anarchy.”
- Hasty Action is Good Action: “If we are seen to be doing something, then whatever we are doing must be right.”
- Delayed Action: “We need more study to make the right decision (but we hope the issue goes away).”
- Ultimate altruism: “Damn the cost! If we can save one life, then it is worth doing!”
- Avoiding Responsibility & Casting Blame: “We have done nothing to create this injustice. It’s the other party’s fault.”
- World with No Risk: “The public is going to be 100% safe after we make these changes.”
- Limited Alternatives: “There are only two choices: the right way and the wrong way.”
- The Red Herring: “Let’s focus on a smaller problem, so we don’t have to discuss the big problem.”
A common byproduct of simplifying the issue is when politicians make promises they do not keep after they are elected to office. It’s easy to make such promises when in opposition, but once in power, they start seeing all the angles to the complicated issue for the first time. They realize their simple solution cannot work, so it is not implemented. Perhaps worse is when they still implement their simple solution to keep their campaign promise.
I’m not saying that simplistic explanations have no place in public decision making for they do provide the vision to move society in positive directions. The danger lies when the simplistic explanation casts aside other crucial angles to finding better solutions. For example, consider constructing an improvement for a particular highway. We can claim there will be fewer accidents with this improvement, and it could happen to be politically correct to move this project forward. But when we invest resources in this improvement, we could be diverting resources away from other opportunities to lower risk elsewhere. We may even increase overall societal risk — even if our highway is a bit safer.
What we need is a more thoughtful process when trying to predict the outcome of our collective decisions. How will our decision affect other aspects of society? What could be the possible ramifications of our decision? How do we monitor the progress of our decision? When the decision is reduced to satisfying the simplistic explanation, then it’s not hard to see why some public decisions are poorly crafted.
So when we judge our political parties and politicians on their abilities to create simplistic explanations, they are being influenced by the need to make simple explanations to stay elected. But we fall short of our potential to resolve the various complicated issues that face us.