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Thursday, November 5, 2015

There’s No Such Thing as a Political Problem Solver

Real Solutions Require Fewer Plans and More Freedom

The yard sign said, “Elect a Problem Solver President.” As I drove by, I wondered why I saw no candidate’s name.

It turns out the sign was not for any particular candidate but for a “No Labels, Problem Solver” convention held in October in Manchester, New Hampshire. Eight presidential candidates from both parties attended; after all, what political candidate doesn’t want to be known as a problem solver?

The purpose of the “problem solver” convention is to begin to “build a National Strategic Agenda” to, among other things, “create 25 million new jobs over the next 10 years.”

During debates and interviews, candidates are drilled on how they will solve all types of economic and social problems. “Solutions” come in sound bites. It seems that more and more Americans wish to be relieved of what Friedrich Hayek describes in The Road to Serfdom as “the necessity of solving our own economic problems and … the bitter choices which this often involves.”

Asking to Be Lied To

Does a prosperous American economic system depend on electing a president who is a problem solver? What does it say that our leaders have to pretend that they can know everything and tidily solve all problems? Are we to be servants to the ends our leaders have chosen for us, working for them by the means that they select?

As we pursue opportunities, we allow for a discovery process that automatically solves problems. 

A focus on solving problems is inconsistent with a market economy. In a Cato Journal article, “Let a Billion Flowers Bloom,” economist George Gilder reminds us that solving problems can be endless and fruitless:

The first great rule of enterprise is do not solve problems. Pursue opportunities. Problems are infinite and they multiply continuously. When you solve them, you are back to where you began. Governments specialize in creating problems that they then generously solve for the people, creating yet more serious and more systemic problems in the process.

As we pursue opportunities, we allow for a discovery process that automatically solves problems.

Discoveries in the Dark

Imagine you are walking up a darkened staircase. There is just enough light to make out the next step in front of you. Light falls on a second step as you take your very first step. With each step, a next step, a new possibility, emerges. But you can’t see and be responsive to these possibilities until you have taken the step in front of you. From the first step, you cannot see the top of the staircase. For that matter, from the step you are standing on now, you cannot see even three steps ahead.

Progress doesn’t occur by commanding and controlling. It is an emergent phenomenon. 

Naturally, there are plenty of times when we feel uncomfortable with this process of emergence. Political candidates try to assuage our fears and maintain the illusion that they can see the whole staircase from the first step to the last. They cannot. From the vantage point they have now, their vision, like ours, is limited.

Credit Where No Credit Is Due

Every “problem-solving” candidate promises to create jobs. But who really creates jobs? Could millions of Americans gainfully employed on farms in 1820 have anticipated that their descendants would be employed in automobile and steel factories? Could those employed in automobile plants have conceived that their children and grandchildren would be writing computer code?

Or consider this: In 1800, according to science writer Matt Ridley in his book The Rational Optimist, an average worker would have to work six hours to earn enough money to pay for an hour of light from a tallow candle. Today, an average worker pays for an hour of indoor lighting with a half-second of work. Did any president solve the problem of expensive indoor lighting? No, light bulbs and reliable electricity both emerged from competing entrepreneurs who saw a widespread need and addressed it in the marketplace.

Progress doesn’t occur by commanding and controlling. It is an emergent phenomenon.

We are supporting the use of force to compel productivity when we believe that “problem-solving” political leaders drive progress. Human energy is exhausted when it is compelled. Those who are capable of creating value for others are prevented from doing so.

Every day, ordinary citizens and entrepreneurs pursue opportunities. No one controls the myriad decentralized decisions and actions that, along the way, solve problems. We don’t need “problem solvers” to tell us the “winning plan.” We need planners and “problem solvers” to stay out of our way.

[This article has been translated into Portuguese by Instituto Ludwig von Mises Brasil.]

  • Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. 

    To receive Barry's essays subscribe at his Substack, Mindset Shifts.

    His essays also appear at the American Institute for Economic Research, Intellectual Takeout, Learn Liberty, The Epoch Times and many other publications. Barry’s essays have been translated into many languages, most frequently Spanish and Portuguese. He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership.

    Barry holds a Ph.D. in economics from Rutgers University and a B.S. in mathematical statistics from CCNY.