Necessary, but not Sufficient

Perhaps it’s the libertarian in me, but I always have trouble worrying about all of society. This is a video by a photographer who illustrates very large statistics in very creative and artistic ways. There is an inherent belief by people of all stripes that if a problem is identified, there is a solution. Given enough commitment, we can tackle anything. Some examples:

  • We must win the war in Iraq
  • We must avert global warming
  • We must win the war on drugs
  • We must win the war on poverty
  • We must win the war on terror
  • We must secure our borders
  • We must prevent the next terror attack
  • We must educate every child
  • We must provide high quality health care to every (child/person)
  • We must feed the hungry, hire the jobless, house the homeless

I want to be clear, I’m not saying we shouldn’t do any of those things. I just notice that they are often presented with the same rhetoric.

“A” is a large problem. “A” has all these costs associated with it. We cannot afford to ignore “A.” If we are going to solve “A,” then we have to commit our whole hearts to it, and each person is going to have to do their part.

The problem above is a question remains unanswered. If we commit our whole hearts to “A,” and each person tries to do their part, will we solve “A”? The person presenting the rhetoric typically doesn’t want you to ask this question. If we punish crack cocaine use with long mandatory penalties, will communities stop being ravaged by it? If we cut the emissions of the United States to 1/100 of their current value, would the rest of the world cut back with us? More realistic, if every person does every small thing they can think of to reduce emissions, will the effect be meaningful?

This has applications for personal aspirations as well. If you wish to be elite at something in life, say being an athlete, a musician, a dancer, or a chess player. It’s very likely that the only way you are going to to achieve that excellence is to dedicate fully to it. When you look at people who have achieved excellence, invariably, they have committed an astounding number of hours to it. However, that extreme commitment won’t guarantee your success. The commitment is necessary to your success, but it is not sufficient to guarantee it. Thus if the only thing in the world you care about is said field, then it makes sense for you to maximize your chances there, by spending hour after hour practicing. However, if there are other things you care about, you must achieve some balance.

This applies to our societal woes as well. Smoking obviously causes harm. It might be that the only way that we can eliminate that harm is to outlaw smoking. Making smoking illegal is necessary to eliminating the harm. But will making smoking illegal actually succeed? If illegal drugs are any guide, then no. Making it illegal is not sufficient to solve all of the harm.

There’s one more thing I’d like to highlight from the video. Some of the pictures he had were contradictory. What should we do with respect to deaths from smoking? The jails are full. Over and incorrect use of prescription drugs is already illegal as well.

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