"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts," the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) famously quipped. But when it comes to social and environmental problems nowadays, nearly everyone thinks he is entitled to his own facts, and an army of experts is on hand to manufacture and promote the carefully curated truths they require. The Progressive Era dream of empowering nonpartisan experts to solve social, economic, and environmental problems has failed spectacularly. What happened?
Breakthrough Institute founders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger grapple with this question in their recent essay "Wicked Polarization: How Prosperity, Democracy, and Experts Divided America," which in turn highlights insights from a 1973 paper by the urban planners Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber. Rittel and Webber drew a useful distinction between "tame" and "wicked" social problems. Tame problems are the sorts of issues that are routinely addressed by scientists and engineers: sanitation, higher agricultural productivity, electrification. They aren't necessarily easy, but they can be clearly defined, relevant information can be gathered, and the effectiveness of proposed solutions can be tested. Solving such problems resulted in improved health and greater affluence, leaving the public and policymakers to focus on less tractable social and environmental problems—that is, wicked ones.
The hallmark of a wicked problem is that the way an expert conceives of it determines the solutions she recommends. For example, Rittel and Webber observe, "'Crime in the streets' can be explained by not enough police, by too many criminals, by inadequate laws, too many police, cultural deprivation, deficient opportunity, too many guns, phrenologic aberrations, etc. Each of these offers a direction for attacking crime in the streets. Which one is right?" Forty years later, each theory still has its devotees.
Rittel and Weber conclude that people's judgments "are likely to differ widely to accord with their group or personal interests, their special value-sets, and their ideological predilections." When claims about a social or environmental problem do not agree, the duo noted, "The analyst's 'world view' is the strongest determining factor in explaining a discrepancy, and, therefore resolving a wicked problem."
In the years since the planners' paper appeared, Nordhaus and Shellenberger point out, "wicked problems would proliferate along with experts in think tanks, universities, and government agencies who set out to define them." Partisans can find copacetic experts to affirm what they already believe about vaccination, genetically modified crops, drug policy, nuclear power, salt consumption, public transportation, international trade, AIDS, R&D subsidies, school curricula, synthetic chemicals, automobile safety, organic crops, fracking, and so on, practically ad infinitum.
Progressives who believe that corporations are unfairly denying workers a living wage can point to research by analysts at Institute for Research on Labor and Employment to argue that higher minimum wages do not increase unemployment. Free marketeers can turn to the Employment Policies Institute for evidence that boosting minimum wages increases unemployment among the youthful and poor. The pro-immigrant Migration Policy Institute can report that Washington "spends more on its immigration enforcement agencies than on all its other principal criminal federal law enforcement agencies combined." The Center for Immigration Studies, which favors strict immigration enforcement, can denounce the study as "bogus" and "riddled with false statements, cherry-picked statistics, and inappropriate comparisons." Climatologists at the University of Alabama in Huntsville can assert that the atmosphere "has not warmed noticeably since the major El Niño of 1997–98—giving us about a decade and a half of generally stable temperatures." Researchers associated with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research can report that the warming rate has been "steady" since 1979.
Rittel and Webber also observe that "many societal processes have the character of zero-sum games"—that is, they are processes in which one group's gains result only from another group's equivalent losses. That fact, I suspect, explains why wicked problems are proliferating.
For decades, an increasingly large percentage of our economic output has been moved from the positive-sum game of markets and private property to the zero-sum game of government and politics. According to the Office of Management and Budget, total government spending in the U.S. rose from 17 percent of GDP in 1948 to 35 percent in 2010. As public choice theory predicts, the more resources government bureaucracies control, the more lobbyists, crony capitalists, and entitlement clients will appear seeking to divert handouts into their pockets. Such would-be beneficiaries need experts to construct the facts that they use to justify to political patrons and agency bureaucrats why they deserve a share of the government's largesse. To the extent that we live in a "post-truth era," it is in good measure because it pays so well to dissemble, exaggerate, and spin for government grants and favors.
Ultimately, Rittel and Webber conclude, "There are no value-free, true-false answers to any of the wicked problems governments must deal with." Nordhaus and Shellenberger agree. "The problem is not that we are in a post-truth age," they suggest, "but rather that we have not learned to adapt to it. Perhaps a good place to begin is by recognizing our own biases, perspectives, and agendas and attempting to hold them more lightly."
That would indeed be a good start, but Rittel and Webber hit on a better way to adapt. One "approach to the reconciliation of social values and individual choice," they note, "is to bias in favor of the latter. Accordingly, one would promote widened differentiation of goods, services, environments, and opportunities, such that individuals might more closely satisfy their individual preferences." Instead of entrusting decisions to purportedly "wise and knowledgeable professional experts and politicians" who aim to impose the "one-best answer," individuals should be allowed to pursue their own visions of the true and the good.
The institution best known for increasing the differentiation of goods, services, environments, and opportunities and for enabling people to express their differing values is the free market. Markets don't need to be run by experts. Any entrepreneur with a new idea, service, or product can pursue and try to profit from what they believe to be the truth.