The Problem Definition Fallacy

Nobody asked but …

Any problem solution algorithm must go through a problem definition stage, but all problem definitions do not lead to an appropriate solution.  You cannot solve, but by random luck, a problem that you do not understand.  And that blind-hog solution will probably not survive downstream consequences for long.

A good example of what I am talking about appeared on Facebook today.  A poster declared that the main problem in the world was that some people were too rich.  He further implied that a solution was an ultimate fix-all for the problems of history.  Then she implied that the answer was simple — to cap the income of everyone.  If there were no excess wealth, there would be no unbalance in power, no bar to equality.

What should the cap be?  Who would determine it?  When will it take effect; will there be a grandfather clause?  Where; will it be worldwide or universal?  Why would it work?  The poser did not answer any of these questions, although there was much hand-waving.  This reminds me of a frequent symptom of addiction — saying a thing will make it come true with no further effort, eg “I am going to quit tomorrow.”

There are two rocky shoals in the passages past problems, and Ockham’s Razor applies to each.  1) The definition of the problem must be precise, neither too much nor too little, and 2) the solution to the problem must be precise, neither too blunt, nor too finicky.

— Kilgore Forelle

Continue Reading

Compulsory Schooling Laws: What if We Didn’t Have Them?

We should always be leery of laws passed “for our own good,” as if the state knows better. The history of compulsory schooling statutes is rife with paternalism, triggered by anti-immigrant sentiments in the mid-nineteenth century and fueled by a desire to shape people into a standard mold.

History books detailing the “common school movement” and the push for universal, compulsory schooling perpetuate the myths that Americans were illiterate prior to mass schooling, that there were limited education options available, and that mandating school attendance under a legal threat of force was the surest way toward equality.

In truth, literacy rates were quite high, particularly in Massachusetts, where the first compulsory schooling statute was passed in 1852. Historians Boles and Gintis report that approximately three-quarters of the total U.S. population, including slaves, was literate¹. There was a panoply of education options prior to mass compulsory schooling, including an array of public and private schooling options, charity schools for the poor, robust apprenticeship models, and homeschooling—this latter approach being the preferred method of Massachusetts education reformer Horace Mann, who homeschooled his own three children while mandating common school attendance for others.

The primary catalyst for compulsory schooling was a wave of massive immigration in the early to mid-1800s that made lawmakers fearful. Many of these immigrants were Irish Catholics escaping the deadly potato famine, and they threatened the predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestant social order of the time. In 1851, the editor of The Massachusetts Teacher, William Swan, wrote:

“In too many instances the parents are unfit guardians of their own children. If left to their direction the young will be brought up in idle, dissolute, vagrant habits, which will make them worse members of society than their parents are; instead of filling our public schools, they will find their way into our prisons, houses of correction and almshouses. Nothing can operate effectually here but stringent legislation, thoroughly carried out by an efficient police; the children must be gathered up and forced into school, and those who resist or impede this plan, whether parents or priests, must be held accountable and punished.”

This is the true history of compulsory schooling that rarely emerges behind the veil of social magnanimity.

So what would happen if these inherently flawed compulsory schooling laws were eliminated?

A Power Shift

First, power would tilt away from the state and toward the family. Without legal force compelling school attendance, parents would have the freedom and flexibility to assume full responsibility for their child’s education. They would not need government permission to homeschool, as is currently required in the majority of U.S. states. Private schools would not need to submit their attendance records to the state to show compliance. Public schools could still be available to those who wanted them, as they were prior to the 1852 law; but government schooling would no longer be the default education option.

More Choices

Because the state would no longer need to bless the creation of various private schools and ratify their curriculum and attendance protocols, an assortment of education options would emerge. Entrepreneurial educators would seize the opportunity to create new and varied products and services, and parents would be the ones responsible for determining quality and effectiveness—not the state. With less government red tape, current trends in education would gain more momentum. Virtual schooling, part-time school options, hybrid homeschooling models, and an array of private schools with diverse education approaches would emerge. As more education choices sprouted, competition would lower prices, making access to these new choices more widespread.

More Pathways to Adulthood

Without the state mandating school attendance for most of childhood, in some states up to age 18, there would be new pathways to adulthood that wouldn’t rely so heavily on state-issued high school diplomas. Innovative apprenticeship models would be created, community colleges would cater more toward independent teenage learners, and career preparation programs would expand. As the social reformer Paul Goodman wrote in his book New Reformation: “Our aim should be to multiply the paths of growing up, instead of narrowing the one existing school path.”

A Broader Definition of Education

In his biography of Horace Mann, historian Jonathan Messerli explains how compulsory schooling contracted a once expansive definition of education into the singular definition of schooling. Indeed, today education is almost universally associated with schooling. Messerli writes: “That in enlarging the European concept of schooling, [Mann] might narrow the real parameters of education by enclosing it within the four walls of the public school classroom.”² Eliminating compulsory schooling laws would break the century-and-a-half stranglehold of schooling on education. It would help to disentangle education from schooling and reveal many other ways to be educated, such as through non-coercive, self-directed education, or “unschooling.”

Even the most adamant education reformers often stop short of advocating for abolishing compulsory schooling statutes, arguing that it wouldn’t make much difference. But stripping the state of its power to define, control, and monitor something as beautifully broad as education would have a large and lasting impact on re-empowering families, encouraging educational entrepreneurs, and creating more choice and opportunity for all learners.


¹ Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, “The origins of mass public education,” History of Education: Major Themes, Volume II: Education in its Social Context, ed. Roy Lowe (London: Routledge Falmer, 2000), 78.

² Jonathan Messerli, Horace Mann: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), 429.

Continue Reading

Gun Policy Costs, Equality and Property Rights, & Minarchism (26m) – Editor’s Break 094

Editor’s Break 094 has Skyler giving his commentary on the following topics: whether homicides, suicides, et cetera, are a valid consideration for the costs of liberal gun policy; the achievement of wealth inequality in a society where property rights are secure; the status of minarchism, or minimal statism, as a libertarian political philosophy; and more.

Listen to Editor’s Break 094 (26m, mp3, 64kbps)

Subscribe via RSS here, or in any podcast app by searching for “everything voluntary”.

Continue Reading

Who Is Your Black Flag Freeing? The Futility of Flags and Labels

One of my favorite things about my company is the diversity of opinion. We have liberals. We have conservatives. We have the non-political and the activists. We also have more than our fair share of people who think we’d be better off with no politics or state at all. I’m one of them.

I can easily tell some of my anarchist coworkers by the black flags on their desks. I inherited one of these black flags from a former developer, and I treat it with reverence. I do go back and forth, though, on whether it should be on my workstation.

As far as I see it, what I mean to signal with that black flag is that I don’t believe in violent power or rulers. What I believe is that people ought to be free to live their lives without coercion from others, with consent in all their interactions.

That’s a good thing. But there are still a few problems with having a flag (or a bumper sticker, or a yard sign, or any kind of public ideological self-label):

  1. Who cares what I think? 
  2. Flags don’t carry positive messages nearly as well as I think. 
  3. Flags have a lot of baggage. 
  4. Flags are a trap.
  5. Flags free no one. 

Having that flag there solves none of those problems.

1. Who cares what I think? It’s just a bit arrogant of me to think that anyone wants to have my politics shoved in their face whenever they visit my desk.

2. Flags don’t carry positive messages nearly as well as I think. When has anyone ever seen a black flag and thought “you know what, I do believe that government isn’t necessary anymore!” Flags communicate labels, not ideas. My black flag might suggest I “am” an anarchist. It doesn’t convey what anarchism means or why it has value.

3. Flags have a lot baggage. Flags, like labels, mean different things to different people. If someone has the concept of anarchism as destruction/chaos/violence/communism/etc, my black flag is only going to drive them away from me and from the concept of anarchism as peace/freedom/equality of authority/mutual respect/etc.

4. Flags are a stumbling block. When you flash around the symbol of an ideal you become responsible for fulfilling that ideal. If you don’t fulfill the ideal, you discredit the ideal at best or become a hypocrite at worst. When I’m waving my flag, someone is getting their concept of what “anarchism” and “anarchists” are like from me and my comments and demeanor. I’d rather they judge the ideas rather than me as a representative.

5. Flags free no one. Waving my black flag around may rah-rah the fellow liberty lovers around me (and make me feel virtuous), but it doesn’t convince anyone to give up on power. It also doesn’t liberate anyone from the grip of the powerful. It’s a poor substitute for action.

All of the above apply to any other belief: you bring little value to the world with your bumper sticker, your yard sign, or your flag. In fact, you may hurt your own cause.

I don’t see too many benefits to the label of anarchist or to a black flag proclaiming my anarchist bent. I see plenty of benefit to acting – in work and out of it – to bring more freedom to people, bit by bit.

So I think I’ll be putting the black flag back in its (honored) storage place.

Continue Reading

On Income Inequality

Advocates of economic egalitarianism, those who fight against so-called “income inequality” fail to understand what achieving their goal entails. It is a basic truth of every economy that low-paying and low-skill jobs exist, jobs like burger-flippers, floor sweepers, lawn mowers, et cetera. These jobs, because they do not require specialized knowledge or skills, can be filled by virtually anyone. The more specialized the job, the fewer people available to fill it, the higher pay it tends to bring. Think of jobs stacked up like a pyramid, the preceding list of jobs at the bottom, the more productive and value-producing jobs at the top, and the highest paid CEOs at the pinnacle. Everyone can do the bottom jobs, very few the top. In order to flatten income distribution, the pyramid can only be squashed downward. Everyone could be paid $30K- a year, but not everyone could be paid $10M+ a year. Therefore, the pursuit of economic egalitarianism is the pursuit of making most people poorer than they are today. This pursuit will not and cannot make society as a whole wealthier. Quite the opposite. And that’s today’s two cents.

Continue Reading

Getting Rich by Supplying Demand

The reason that so many people have refrigerators is because profit-driven businesses tried really hard to make refrigerators that most people can afford. The businesses did this to profit themselves, not to be altruistic toward others. And today, as a result of the huge number of refrigerators already in existence, I’m getting an old used one for a really low price. Because “supply and demand.” So today, once again, I am thankful for “capitalism” and “greedy businessmen”–i.e. people who found ways to enrich themselves by producing stuff people wanted to buy. Because I am personally benefiting from that.

It’s ironic how many other people live easy enough lives, as a result of that same thing, who spend their leisure time bitching about how evil profit is, or how evil money is, or how evil “wealth inequality” is, etc. And if you took away all the riches they have as a result of profit-driven “capitalism,” most of them would literally die.

Continue Reading