Last week, I had a lively discussion about drug policy with a blazingly smart member of parliament. I explained that there is no true solution to drug problems. Rather, we use public policy to pick the particular sort of drug problem society will have. For example, different policy environments can make it a human rights problem, an addiction problem, a crime problem, an AIDS problem, a public disorder problem etc., but no policy will produce a true ending of all of society’s problems with drugs. There are some policies that ameliorate multiple aspects of the problem, but in most cases we are faced with hard choices about what sort of problem we will have rather than a problem-free alternative. And because people do not agree about which choice is the best, the policy debate is both eternal and unresolvable.
He asked me whether there were other policy problems of this nature. I started to say that policy problems around protections for privacy vs. the value of transparency were an example, and then thought that maybe policy problems around the degree of regulatory power of government versus the freedom of the private sector was a better example, and then realized that I couldn’t think of any current public policy problem that *wasn’t* essentially unsolvable because certain realities were in basic tension.
So I posited to him that public policy problems have been put through a Darwinian selection process in the era of modern government, and all the easy ones have died off. Modern sewerage has eliminated cholera in London and no one is calling for its return. Problem, in short, solved. Ditto constructing and laying out buildings in a fashion that makes another Great Fire impossible. Everything that was solvable has been solved, and died off accordingly in our public policy debates. All that survives are hard choices.
The M.P. pointed out that this is almost never acknowledged. Rather, there is ridiculous rhetoric along the lines of “There is no contradiction between growing the size of our cities and having less countryside” and the like, when in fact there are some essential tensions in our current policy problems and therefore some hard choices to make.
He then challenged me: “Politicians can’t really stand up and say that our problems aren’t solvable. I mean, how would you sell that? What would you put on a bumper sticker to explain that?”
“Life is Dukkha” I said, to his laughter.