Category Archives: civic theory

wicked problems, and excuses

Is the following true for social problems?

Will + resources + planning = a solution

A corollary would hold:

If there isn’t a solution, there must be a lack of will or resources or a bad plan.

I think this logic sometimes holds, and it’s the basis for holding responsible parties accountable. They may not have cared enough, or spent enough, or thought well enough about a problem. If not, they should be called on it.

On the other hand, the formula overlooks the power of sheer chance. Sometimes decision-makers are just lucky or unlucky. And it ignores the possibility that some problems may be really hard: “wicked problems,” in the best-remembered phrase from the famous article by Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4.2 (1973), 155-169. (We discussed this article recently in my introduction to public policy course.)

Rittel and Webber write, “Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad” (p. 162). Yet people disagree about what is good.

“With wicked problems… any solution, after being implemented, will generate waves of consequences over an extended–virtually an unbounded–period of time” (p. 163). Since change keeps happening, there is no point when you can definitively assess the impact of a policy (p. 163). Also, there is no agreed-upon criterion for a successful policy (p. 162), and therefore, no way to know whether your solution succeeded.

“Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem” (p. 165). Thus we can endlessly disagree about the center or “locus” of the problem. This is one reason that “There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem” (p. 161).

You can’t learn by trial-and-error, because every time you implement a policy, you change the world permanently (p. 163). You can’t start a social experiment over from scratch and try something different. And because your policy affects real people, you have “no right to be wrong” (p. 165).

There is no way to develop an exhaustive list of all the possible solutions (p. 164). And “Every wicked problem is essentially unique” (164)

One upshot of Rittel and Webber’s argument could be humility: do not overestimate one’s own ability to solve social problems. Another would be decentralization, whether to small governing units or to firms in a market. Decentralization is a way of mitigating damage and allowing local solutions to fit local circumstances. A third upshot would be participation: if problems are deeply contestable, maybe everyone should be involved in addressing them.

Yet another takeaway might be defeatism and tolerance for injustice, but that seems the wrong lesson to draw.

See also: Complexities of Civic Life; qualms about Effective Altruism; The truth in Hayek; trying to keep myself honest.

how political talk relates to its context

— Please don’t talk that way in school.

— It’s a free country; I can say what I want.

Both of these speakers describe the context in which they’re speaking in order to support their goals or values. Even if they’re in the same place, both could be making valid points, because we can operate within several contexts at once. For instance, a classroom can be located within the United States.

These speakers are not completely free to describe their contexts as they wish. Unless the first speaker is actually located inside a school in which certain norms are commonly observed, that statement is odd–perhaps a joke or an idiosyncratic remark rather than an effective intervention. The first statement assumes a real, bricks-and-mortar building that has prevalent norms.

However, these statements are not completely determined by their objective context. They reflect choices: speakers can select which contexts to highlight and can identify preferred features of the contexts.

If many speakers make the same choices, they can influence the context. For instance, if teachers consistently say, “You can’t curse here,” the school may become a place where public cursing is rare. Teachers could decide to begin or to stop describing the school’s norms in that way. They are more influential than their students; as in most cases, power in unequally distributed. However, we only get the speech-context we want to the extent that the norms we advocate are actually observed. If teachers say, “We don’t talk that way here,” but everyone does anyway, they will begin to look foolish. In that sense, everyone influences the context, albeit to unequal degrees.

We can sometimes even use speech to create the context for speech, as in performative utterances like these:

— I call the meeting to order.

— Let us bow our heads in prayer.

(The second statement might change a secular gathering into a spiritual one for a time.)

I’ve recently learned that John J. Gumperz (1922-2013), a founder of interactional sociolinguistics, pioneered the idea that language has a dynamic, two-way interaction with social contexts. I look forward to learning more, especially about the political implications.

After all politics requires good conversation. The definition of good political talk is itself a matter of debate. Who must be included in each discussion? Must the discourse be civil? Must it be public-spirited? Must it aim at consensus? Must it be secular? What counts as appropriate evidence for empirical claims? Which emotions are valuable and when?

Contexts influence what forms of speech actually occur and prove effective. Political speech uttered in a church during a faith-based social movement will inevitably be different from political speech uttered in a faculty meeting, a union hall, or a courtroom. I am skeptical that we need just one type of speech. Pluralism is good.

Speech contexts are shaped by:

  1. The implicit norms reflected in typical speech within each context. For example, if it is common to criticize other participants by name, then that is the norm.
  2. Explicit characterizations of the context. “You really shouldn’t keep citing scripture here–most of us are not Christian” would be such a move. It describes the local norm as secular, and if people accept this description, it may affect their speech.
  3. Other aspects of the institution: Who is permitted and/or recruited to participate? What behavior is rewarded? Who makes key decisions? Even literal architecture may matter. For instance, a bricks-and-mortar school probably consists of many rooms that are designed to hold one adult with 15-30 children or youth. Discourse would be different in a stadium, a prison, or along a forest trail.

We should envision speakers as operating in contexts that they may or may not endorse. At one level, they make ordinary points about what they believe or advocate. How they talk either conforms to the norms of the speech-context or violates them to some degree. Widespread violation can change the norms.

At another level, individuals may seek to change the speech-context, either by moving to another context (exit) or by seeking to alter its norms (voice). They can use their voice to advocate directly for different speech-norms, as in statements like, “Everyone is being too politically correct here–we must tolerate uncomfortable opinions.” Or they may use their voice to support changes in the institution that would likely change the norms. For instance, changing the demographic composition of a school or the balance of power between teachers and students might change the frequency of various forms of discourse in the school.

Discourse ethics is then not exhausted by the question: What kind of arguments should individuals make about policies and issues? It also encompasses questions about how to design, create, choose, and influence the contexts of speech, both directly and indirectly.

This is a mild critique of the idea that one kind of speech is desirable in a liberal democracy and that institutions should enact rights, rules, and procedures that encourage such speech. Instead, I am suggesting that people are embedded in diverse speech-contexts, which they also influence; such pluralism is desirable as well as inevitable; and people need ethical forms of voice and exit that they can use to affect their various speech-contexts.

See also: what sustains free speech?; a civic approach to free speech; this is what deliberative democracy looks like; modus vivendi theory; and judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view.

two good books on Black Lives Matter

  • Lebron, Christopher J., The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea (Oxford University Press, 2017)
  • Ransby, Barbara. Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First century (Univ. of California Press, 2018).

These are two very different but complementary books.

Lebron offers a history of the idea that Black lives matter, describing thinkers who lived well before the current movement and developed its core principles. His book is an extended definition of the movement, a justification of it, and a contribution to it.

Lebron pairs Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells as pioneers of the idea that whites can be compelled to reckon with racial injustice through “shameful publicity.” He pairs Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston as influential proponents of the idea that actual Black lives are rich and variegated and diverse, not defined entirely by oppression. Both authors “counter-colonize[d] the white imagination” by portraying this richness. He pairs Anna Julia Cooper and Audre Lorde, who demonstrated that you can’t value Black lives unless you value all Black lives, which requires appreciation for gender, sexuality, and other forms of diversity. These writers “teach us the lesson of unconditional self-possession.” And he pairs James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr. as proponents of forms of love which–while significantly different–both imply “unfragmented compassion.”

Lebron is a great source of relatively overlooked quotations as well as an original interpreter of texts as familiar as Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” His overall framework is illuminating.

Ransby is an historian and a participant/observer in the current movement. She offers a wealth of detail about who did what, when, where, and why (up to her publication date in 2018). Like Lebron’s, her book is sprinkled with quotations that amount to arguments for Black Lives Matter, but her timeframe is narrower. She mainly traces the intellectual history of the movement from the 1977 Combahee River Collective’s statement (which, of course, had its own influences).

Ransby is attentive to organized structures. Many Black Lives Matter activists are concerned about concentrated power and prefer flat hierarchies. One source of these ideas is Ella Baker: see Ransby’s own book, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (2003).

However, it would not be accurate to describe Black Lives Matter as unorganized or as resistant to formal structures of any kind. Ransby describes “an assemblage of dozens of organizations and individuals that are actively in one another’s orbit, having collectively employed an array of tactics together.” Many of these organizations are autonomous nonprofits; some are companies or programs within organizations that also have other purposes. Ransby emphasizes the importance of local chapters, of organizations whose main purpose is to “weave together” these local groups, and of significant conferences, such as a gathering of more than two thousand organizers in Cleveland in July 2015. Most dedicated activists in the movement have long resumes of roles in formal organizations.

My impression is that resistance to hierarchy is real and valid. It goes back to the New Left and has drawn additional impetus from feminism. However, the major change from the classic era of the Civil Rights Movement is not that leaders then believed in top-down authority, whereas activists today favor looser networks. It is the profound shift in the sociology of American civil society.

The NAACP, the Urban League, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters exemplified a model that was influential in the United States during the first half of the 1900s. National organizations often had state units and local chapters; members paid dues that were shared by the three tiers; and leaders were elected at each level, often at face-to-face conventions. Individuals made whole careers within one of these organizations. One reason that the Sleeping Car Porters’ A. Philip Randolph, the National Urban League’s Whitney Young, Jr., and the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins emerged as nationally famous civil rights leaders was that they headed their respective organizations, and smaller groups like King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference imitated the same structure.

However, this format shrank and weakened dramatically in the United States after the 1960s. Instead, US civil society is now dominated by autonomous nonprofits that rely on donations, grants or contracts. They usually have self-perpetuating boards and relate to each other in networks rather than hierarchies. Many are both led and staffed by their original founders. Individuals typically affiliate with several of these nonprofits and add and subtract affiliations frequently.

Many of the organizations that Ransby describes (and they are very numerous) fit this description. I am not sure that anyone knows how to build new organizations that function as the NAACP or a union did in 1960. I wouldn’t say that philosophical opposition to hierarchy is irrelevant or invalid, but I am not sure that movements have much of a choice today. For better or worse, the way we organize ourselves is to form networks of small nonprofits.

Martin Luther King’s philosophy of time

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. set himself against two false conceptions of time and offered a profoundly original alternative.

One false idea was what he called in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail the “tragic misconception” that time flows inevitably toward justice. This is a linear, progressive theory. It has always been popular in the United States, where the white majority has tilted toward optimism and self-satisfaction. We tell ourselves that although we have faults, “the current has set steadily in one direction: toward democratic forms” (John Dewey). This kind of optimism has also been influential in liberal Protestantism and can even have a metaphysical underpinning: since God is omnipotent and good, things will work out, both in this life and the next.

It can imply that people should calm down and wait for justice. The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is King’s response to messages like this one, which he says he received “from a white brother in Texas”: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.”

Rev. King answers, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never. We must come to see … that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.'”

King was equally opposed to the idea that time is static, that a society cannot fundamentally change. One version of this idea says that White supremacy is evil but also foundational and highly unlikely ever to yield. A different version is held by white supremacists. George Wallace, for instance, emphasized that history was, and must remain, static. When he cried, “Segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever,” Wallace was denying the passage of time. And he presented this stance as nothing new: “we sound the drum … as have our generations of forebears before us done, time and time again through history.”

King’s alternative view had three features.

First, the flow of time is up to us. History is neither a tragedy–with a foreordained evil conclusion–nor a comedy, inevitably moving toward a happen end. Nor are we stuck in a changeless present. “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”

Second, the past is always present. It infuses our own time. In the “I Have a Dream Speech,” King says, “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. . … It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check.”

The founding of the republic was almost two centuries in the past, yet the promissory note was still on the books. (And still is today.) That was not quite a metaphor, because King was quite literal about the need for repayment, for reparations. But the idea that the debts of the past are still carried on the nation’s books was one of many tropes he used to convey the continued existence of the past.

Third, we can make the future present. We can envision a better conclusion and pull that vision into our own time. For instance, we can imagine a future when the government founded by Jefferson and Madison pays its debts to the descendants of the people they had enslaved, thus changing the relationship between the past and the present. Once we imagine that moment, we can work to accomplish it.

King’s “Dream” that Black and white Georgians will “sit down together at the table of brotherhood”–while Mississippi is “transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice”–is not a prediction or a forecast. It is an invention whose purpose is to motivate the quarter of a million people who gathered on the National Mall on August 28, 1963.

And it was remarkable that they had gathered there. Popular movements–and especially nonviolent popular movements with idealistic causes–defy realistic predictions. Individuals usually calculate the costs and risks for themselves against the benefits for themselves. To join a social movement, especially in the face of vicious opposition, is costly and dangerous. Any benefits are speculative. It is rational to stand aside and see if other people struggle for justice. If they do, the problem may be solved without an individual’s having to take the risk. And if they don’t, the individual’s sacrifice would have been pointless anyway.

Yet people occasionally defy this logic and rise up together in large numbers in the same time and place. Montgomery in 1955, Birmingham in 1963, the Washington Mall later in 1963, and Selma in 1965 were moments when the future suddenly broke into the present. To delay them would have destroyed them.

In his last speech, “I Have Been to the Mountaintop,” King diagnoses the challenge (oppressed people calculate their individual interests and fail to congeal as a movement) and reminds his audience of the power of acting in concert:

Now what does all this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. (Yeah) We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula of doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. [Applause] But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. [Applause] Now let us maintain unity.

Note again the analysis of time. Pharoah wants to keep things static, to “prolong the period of slavery.” As soon as the slaves “get together,” the future comes into view.

People sometimes quote King’s line that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” to suggest that progress is inevitable–perhaps because of divine providence. He said those words at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march, which had been fraught, controversial even within the movement, and very nearly a failure. That day, a tragic conclusion was all too easy to imagine. After envisioning a future when “society [is] at peace with itself” and “can live with its conscience,” King says, “I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?'” He gives a series of calls and responses, each beginning “How long? Not long, because …” This is the context in which he mentions the arc of the universe. He does not mean that it will surely carry us to justice and that we can confidently wait for that day. No one who had marched with him to Montgomery would have imagined that. He is telling his audience that they can bend the arc, that they can move the future closer.

In short, the past is always still present, the future can break into today, we can move our vision across time, and we can determine how things end.

Wallace had imagined waves of white supremacists standing in the way of justice, one generation after another. King instead invoked a series of prophets, “extremists for justice,” who were able to envision history’s conclusion and thus speak to us from their own times. In the “Letter,” King names five religious prophets–Amos, Jesus, Paul, Martin Luther, and John Bunyan–and two secular democratic ones, Jefferson and Lincoln. He also credits six contemporary white men and women (most of whose names I do not recognize) for writing “about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms.”

Prophesy means transcending the present to affect the future. In Stride to Freedom, King had written, “Any discussion of the Christian minister today must ultimately emphasize the need for prophecy. … May the problem of race in America soon make hearts burn so that prophets will rise up, saying, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ and cry out as Amos did, ‘. . . let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.'” As his career progressed, he constantly returned to the nineteen biblical books traditionally called Nevi’im, prophecies. For instance, in the “I Have a Dream Speech,” King again quoted Amos 5:24 along with Isaiah 40:4 (“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain”).

This genre of prophecy typically begins with a moral condemnation of the present, often directed explicitly at the most powerful people: the kings, priests, and rich men:

Forasmuch therefore as your treading is upon the poor, and ye take from him burdens of wheat: ye have built houses of hewn stone, but ye shall not dwell in them; ye have planted pleasant vineyards, but ye shall not drink wine of them.

For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: they afflict the just, they take a bribe, and they turn aside the poor in the gate from their right.

(Amos 5:11-12)

The prophecy may forecast the punishment and fall of these wicked men. “Woe unto you,” says the Lord, through Amos, six verses later. The prophet then envisions a better time, a time of justice. This is not a forecast based on continuing the current trends into the future. Rather, it is moral and hortatory. If the people begin to act righteously, then God will help them make the world better. “Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate: it may be that the Lord God of hosts will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph” (Amos 5:15).

King’s last–and arguably greatest–speech was also his most explicitly prophetic. He had come to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. A mass march had gone badly from his perspective. It had turned violent, at least around the edges. Film of the event strongly suggests that police instigated the violence. King blamed the press for focusing on some “window breaking” instead of the structural violence against Black workers. Yet he was shaken by his own inability to preserve nonviolent discipline. This was the first time he had joined or led a march in which the protesters had failed to turn the other cheek. He was also exhausted and ill, unwilling to speak or even to travel to the venue in the midst of a thunderstorm. He forced himself to go anyway.

We know that he had one less than day left to live, and we must read the speech with that hindsight.

He starts with the now. He says, “something is happening in Memphis, something is happening in our world.” From there, he moves immediately out of the linear flow of time. He asks us to imagine him “standing at the beginning of time with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now” and conversing with the immortal Almighty. He traverses history, mentioning some of the high points, and concludes that the time when he would most like to live is the present. Things certainly seem bad, “but I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”

Once again, he sees the future in the present, taking the form of a voluntary popular movement. “Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up.” At the beginning of his career, he would have emphasized the protesters in his immediate surroundings, but now he sees that the uprising is global. People are “assembled today” in Johannesburg, Nairobi, Accra, New York City, Atlanta, Jackson, and where he stands, Memphis. “The cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.'”

He rehearses the glorious moments of the movement so far, emphasizing the mightiness of a unified nonviolent struggle. He commends the preachers in attendance for their prophetic voices and quotes Amos as the exemplary prophet. He makes the case for economic pressure. He acknowledges people’s fear and exhorts them not to stop when the time is so critical. He recalls when he was nearly assassinated and gives thanks that he survived, because then he could witness the moments when unified people overcame oppression: sit-ins, freedom rides, Albany, Birmingham, Selma. Interestingly, he includes tactical failures, like Albany, and moments when he was not personally involved.

And then he turns to the future, which we know and which he seems uncannily to foresee with less than 24 hours left to live:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. (Amen) But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. (Yeah) [Applause] And I don’t mind. [Applause continues] Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. (Yeah) And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. (Go ahead) And I’ve looked over (Yes sir), and I’ve seen the Promised Land. (Go ahead) I may not get there with you. (Go ahead) But I want you to know tonight (Yes), that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. [Applause] (Go ahead, Go ahead) And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. [Applause]

I am influenced here by David Luban, “Difference Made Legal: The Court and Dr. King.” Michigan Law Review 87, no. 8 (1989): 2152-2224. Luban insightfully compares King to Walter Benjamin. See also:  the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theologynotes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King; Martin Luther and Martin Luther King; no justice, no peace? (on the relationship between these concepts); Martin Luther King as a philosopher; learning from Memphis, 1968; against inevitability; “Another Time for Freedom? Lessons from the Civil Rights Era,” etc.

Complexities of Civic Life

Below is an excerpt from a new article of mine in a special issue of The Bridge on “complex unifiable systems.” The Bridge is a quarterly journal of the National Academy of Engineering. The article and the whole special issue are available free. Several other contributions may also be interesting to civic and political people. I would cite this piece as: Peter Levine, “The Complexity of Civic Life,” The Bridge, vol. 50, no. 4 (Winter 2020), pp. 34-6


Imagine that some college students have volunteered to serve meals at a homeless shelter. They love the experience because they are helping others. During the reflection session after the meal, one student remarks, “Serving the homeless was so great! I hope this shelter will still be open 50 years from now so that my grandchildren can also serve here.”

The progressive educator who has organized this experience is horrified and says, “No! Our goal must be to end homelessness. You must think about root causes, not treat the most superficial symptoms. What are the fundamental causes of homelessness?”

Chastened, the students debate the root causes. Some argue that homelessness results from poverty, which, in turn, is a byproduct of capitalism. Others counter that the root cause is the cost of real estate, which is inflated by -zoning laws. They are deep into a discussion of capitalism and the state when the Brazilian legal theorist and former cabinet minister Roberto Mangabeira Unger happens to walk by.

“Stop this!” cries Unger. “You are looking for fixed, simple, law-like causal relationships. We human beings have made the social world. What we have made, we can also change—not just the components, but also the many ways they fit together and affect each other.”

Unger (who is famous for long speeches) continues, “By looking for root causes, you are limiting your imaginations, assuming that the only important changes are the hardest ones to accomplish. Be more creative. What if we got rid of all zoning and rent control but also gave everyone a voucher for free rent? What if public buildings were retrofitted to allow people to sleep comfortably in them at night? What if houses were shared, and homeless people occupied the temporarily empty ones? What if…?”

The Myth of the Root Cause

I have invented this fable and Unger’s words, but I am paraphrasing portions of his False Necessity (2004) to support a serious point.

root cause is a metaphor. The root is literally the vital part of a plant that is hidden from sight; digging it up will kill the whole organism. The word radical derives from the Latin word for root. The educator in my fable thinks he is radical because he directs his students to the deepest, least visible, and least tractable aspect of the problem, assuming that attacking a root is the way to a permanent solution.

But a social problem rarely has one root cause or leverage point. Many factors combine to determine results. The same variables that are outcomes are also inputs or causes. Virtuous and vicious circles and feedback loops are common phenomena that illustrate a broader point: any society is a complex network of causes and effects. Interventions are possible at multiple points.

Strategies and Skills for Networks of Causes

Like a root, a network is a metaphor (or mental model) for describing reality, but the difference is important. To improve a society viewed as a complex network requires particular skills and strategies—not those favored by would-be “radicals” who insist on focusing only on “the root.”

First, strategies should be tailored to an individual’s or organization’s location in the network. Management scholar Alnoor Ebrahim (2019) argues that organizations differ in how reliably they can predict outcomes in a system as a whole. They also differ in how much control they can exercise over their portions of the system.

These are two distinct dimensions. With low control but the ability to make reliable causal predictions, a wise strategy may be to identify a specific niche where the organization can operate effectively. …

[The rest is here.]