The Curse of Monocausality

Publish Date
Principles Series
Last Edit
Apr 3, 2022 01:49 PM
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One byproduct of human’s desire for simplicity and our desire to outsource our critical thinking is that we often want to boil things down to one root cause. In a recent episode of The Remnant, Jonah Goldberg refers to this desire for simplicity as “One-thingism,” after the oft-repeated phrase in interviews, “If you could boil it down to one thing…”
While this type of thinking was obviously valuable to our ancient ancestors, it is increasingly ill-adapted for the complex world in which we currently reside. One-thingism might have worked well when trying to sleuth out why the crops weren’t growing as well as they did last year. It will work demonstrably less well when you are trying to determine why our culture is evolving in a certain way, why people are still living in poverty, or why healthcare is so expensive.
All of these things – and basically everything else – has multiple vectors influencing them. And anyone who says they know the “one reason why X is happening” is bound to be a huckster or a charlatan. We live in a complex world with complex interactions, and simple explanations almost never exist. This leads us to an important corollary to this: if there’s no one cause, there’s also no one policy fix that will solve any given problem.
Life is always easier when there’s one thing at the top.
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Sadly though, these simple explanations have a very intense appeal to our brains. We yearn for the ease of X caused Y as it tells us what to do, or who to thank or blame for any situation. And of course, politicians are happy to oblige. In lieu of naming names, let’s just offer this: if there are any candidates suggesting that grabbing a bunch of money from rich people and using it to pay for “free things” to make everything all better, it’s best not to believe them. The same could be said for hypothetical figures yelling about building yuge walls.
No one wall is going to solve much. Neither will “free” college or “free” healthcare. These are laughable simplifications of really tough problems.
The last thing I’ll say on the subject: acknowledging this nuance can lead one to seem like an endless naysayer and nincompoop. The key is to somehow find the balance between the extremes. While there is no one cause, there are smaller-scale practical steps we can take toward improving immigration, healthcare, and education. But we’ll get to that at a later date.