Politics & Policy

Solving Social Problems Will Never Be Easy

A neighborhood in the Richmond District of San Francisco, Calif., in 2012. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
Beware simple, government-driven solutions to massive, knotty societal problems.

Imagine that you are the czar of all building in San Francisco, and that you have been asked for your thoughts on the design of a new apartment building that is under consideration. What is your top concern?

If you are a halfway competent and benevolent dictator — and, goodness knows, history has shown us few enough of those! — then you’d probably put “affordability” at the top of your list. The people of San Francisco and the surrounding areas are very much in need of new affordable housing: In the city itself, the median price of a house is now just over $1.6 million, more than 16 times the median household income. Affordable housing is a big issue not only for regular middle-class people but for the high-tech titans of Silicon Valley, who worry that some highly productive potential employees are looking elsewhere for their futures, not to mention that the housing market forces them to pay more for all their workers. There are other places that have faced such problems, notably resort communities such as Aspen, Colo., but it is unusual for a major city to become so comprehensively unaffordable. Even famously expensive New York City has its more affordable enclaves, without which many industries — from food-service to publishing — would have enormous human-capital problems.

But if the czar of building in San Francisco were presented with a design for the most affordable apartment building that possibly could be built (for the purpose of our thought experiment, there is no building code), he almost certainly would reject it, because it would lack certain health and safety features that most of us regard as essential. It probably would not be very attractive or very energy-efficient. It probably would not be very comfortable to live in, either.

A different building czar might believe instead that energy efficiency is the most important concern. But if he were presented with a design for the most energy-efficient building that possibly could be built, he almost certainly would reject it, because it would lack things that most of us regard as essential, like windows.

What if we put safety and health first? We might say we want the maximum affordability consistent with safety and health. But even seemingly obvious concerns such as safety eventually put us in a bind: At some point, we will encounter a marginal improvement to safety that forces us to accept compromises in affordability, energy efficiency, or some other criterion that seems to us excessive or unreasonable.

In fact, the building czar making up a list of things that are legitimately important in the design of such a project might, off the top of his head, jot down: affordability, health and safety (which might very well include concerns ranging from fire and earthquakes to crime and terrorism), energy efficiency, accessibility for disabled people, comfort, aesthetics, externalities such as traffic and parking, any likely effects on neighboring residents and businesses, utility loads (a big concern for New York, lately), and a few other things. Some of these concerns are complementary: A building that is more energy efficient will demand less of its utility providers; a building that is well integrated into the mass-transit network will need less parking and contribute less to traffic, etc. But other concerns will clash: Many beautiful buildings sacrifice energy efficiency to aesthetics; some safety and accessibility features consume both energy and money; the cost difference between making a building very durable in an earthquake and making it very, very durable in an earthquake may be very high.

All of those tradeoffs will impose costs, some of which might not be obvious until you are faced with an unusual or extreme circumstance. There wasn’t anything defective about the design of the World Trade Center towers, which very likely would have stood up just fine in the event of an ordinary fire or many kinds of possible terrorist attack. But they were not designed to stand up to having jetliners flown into them, even though the question had, oddly enough, come up when the project was being conceived in the 1960s.

So, you want your apartment building to be affordable, but you also want it to be safe — from what? Ordinary building fires? Terrorist attacks? Meteors? Earthquakes? Okay: How big an earthquake? You want it to be green, but you also want it to be attractive and comfortable. You want it to have few enough entrances to be secure but enough exits for people to get out quickly during a fire.

That’s one building, and one building gets pretty complicated all by itself. When you move into the larger realm of the entire housing stock of a city such as San Francisco, the problem gets exponentially more complex. As the locals sometimes like to remind us, the Bay Area is home to an enormous concentration of intelligence, engineering expertise, human capital, and ordinary capital, too. But for all those resources, it has made zero progress toward its goal of making housing more affordable. And there isn’t anything nefarious behind that: It is a complex problem and would be even if everybody had exactly the same preferences and priorities — which, as it turns out, they don’t.

Which is to say: The things that make people want to put czars in charge of complicated and intractable problems are also the things that make it a terrible idea to put czars in charge of complicated and intractable problems.

If designing an apartment building is complex, then how much more complex is designing, say, a national system of regulating and subsidizing health-insurance companies, medical providers, employers, state governments, and — oh! — just about every one of the 327.2 million residents of this country from sea to shining sea, in a way that optimizes at least a few hundred major criteria that are in many cases either rivalrous or incompatible? How much more complicated than that is reorganizing more or less the entirety of human economic activity in simultaneous pursuit of environmental and social-justice goals involving competing factors so complex that the relationships among them are literally incomprehensible?

The same bureaucracies and politician-dominated processes we expect to ensure substantial justice for the entirety of the human race while optimizing the sum of human material life in accord with certain slippery and vaguely defined environmental goals cannot figure out how to raise an apartment building in San Francisco — which in reality entails not figuring out how to develop the needed housing but how to let other people who want to use their own money and energy to develop that housing do so — or how to run a high school in Milwaukee, or how to ensure that all of the people on Death Row actually belong there. The federal government cannot even say with any confidence how many programs it currently administers. Don’t ask its auditors where the money went.

All of the Instagram-ready chin-up posturing and declarations of moral urgency in the world will not change the facts of problems before us or render inoperative Immanuel Kant’s maxim that “ought implies can.” The adjectives “ambitious,” “inspiring,” “audacious,” and “sweeping” should be met with dread by those who value boring things like reason, responsibility — and reality.

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