Have you ever wondered why solutions to public policy problems sometimes seem so contentious? The most common approach to problem solving is "do x, get y result," where x and y are usually based on ideology.
But real life doesn't quite work like that; we usually can't pull a lever and get a specific result when dealing with complex behaviors or situations.
Let's look at examples in crime, the economy and international relations.
But first, would a good doctor prescribe just one remedy for all ailments? If you have a doctor who only has one solution to all ailments, you need to find a new doctor. Clearly, this isn't how it should be done. Doctors have to diagnose the problem, find an appropriate remedy, test the remedy and measure the remedy to see if it worked. It's the same thing with crime.
Conventional wisdom says that if we just lock up all the criminals we will get less crime. But this is not supported by crime rate and incarceration rate trends. Crime rates have fluctuated as prison population rates keep going up - there is no correlation between the two. We know that the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, yet we are also one of the most violent societies. Laws that rely on deterrence rely on criminals to follow the law. That doesn't make me feel safe.
The problem with relying on laws and prison to be safe is that they don't take into account the causes of crime or most of the risk factors associated with increased crime. For example, we know that violent media, peer pressures and having been abused are three of many risk factors associated with youth crime. By targeting risk factors and having specific solutions, we can expect to prevent most crime before we have to punish it. Be wary when you hear politicians promoting one-step solutions to crime. The real world is complicated and so are the solutions. We want to incarcerate some criminals, others we should put on probation, and for some we can just fine and that is the end of it. It depends on the circumstances. There is no one size fits all.
Next, let's consider the economy.
On the one hand, economics is a very useful discipline in analyzing the real world. On the other hand, historically economics has been too dependent on "rational behavior." I had an economics professor once respond to a question about an economic model with "well, don't ask questions about the real world; just let the model explain what's going on." This professor was knowingly making a joke about his profession; he actually taught that the most appropriate answer is usually "it depends."
For example, in theory if we give tax breaks to big corporations and the rich, it will stimulate the economy and trickle down to the not so rich. This is usually true if the corporations and the rich invest what is not paid in taxes in sectors that will benefit the not-so-rich. But what we see in the real world right now is that corporations and the rich are saving their profits instead of investing. This means that, at present, supply-side economics (aka, trickle down economics, or what President George H.W Bush called "voodoo economics") isn't doing what we wish it were. Instead, corporations and the rich are saving for a rainy day, which slows economic recovery.
But does this mean saving is bad? Well, again, "it depends." When times are good, saving is good. But during an economic recovery, such as what we are going through right now, saving doesn't help the economy since it doesn't stimulate the economy. You might remember early in the economic crisis in 2008, President George W. Bush told consumers to get out there and spend; Bush even pushed for the tax rebate to encourage spending.
Finally, in international relations, how do we best deal with our enemies? Again, it depends. If Hitler had been stopped in Munich in 1939, we might not have seen World War II, but force was needed. Today, the U.S. has many enemies that are not at war with us but who would still like to see the U.S. weaker and have less global influence. Perhaps one approach is what Republican President Abraham Lincoln said, "I destroy my enemy when I make him my friend." In the 1990s, we used an approach that blended diplomacy and force during the Dayton Peace Accords to successfully stop warring factions in Bosnia. Lessons from the past support each of these approaches but under different circumstances.
The problem solving process is more important than pre-set liberal or conservative solutions. Since there is no one size fits all approach to any public policy challenge, how should we move forward with different problems? You guessed it it depends.
PAUL HEROUX of Attleboro is a master's candidate at Harvard's JFK School of Government and can be reached at Paul_Heroux@hks11.harvard.edu.