Friday, 2 September 2016

The Blind Lifeguard Problem

In a week in which almost everyone in Westminster and in the media is getting almost everything wrong about the topic of social mobility, let me bring up a pertinent phenomenon I thought up called The Blind Lifeguard Problem to illustrate a big misconception humans have about problems and solutions. There is no market demand for blind lifeguards because a key role in being a lifeguard is being able to see what is going on in the water.

Very obvious, I know - but given the foregoing it would be absurd for anyone to claim that the absence of blind lifeguards in the marketplace proves there is unfair discrimination going on. In short, anyone who perceived the lack of blind lifeguards to be a problem would be perceiving something that isn't a problem at all.

The Blind Lifeguard Problem plays out often in everyday life, particularly in politics and economics - it is what we might aptly call the no-problem fallacy. That is, sometimes there are genuine problems, and sometimes there are only perceived problems that are more to do with the limited analysis going in to the perception. And then, even if it's agreed there is a problem, that doesn't mean there is necessarily a solution.

If problems can be solved, or a bad situation ameliorated, fine - sometimes (but not always) we should act on that. But some problems are simply things we don't like about the world that actually don't have a solution, or certainly not one we should attempt to bring about. It's an important lesson that many need to learn, namely:

1) Not every perceived problem is actually a problem

2) Even if is a problem, it's not necessarily one we should be solving

That is to say, quite often there are perfectly good reasons why there are very few female garage mechanics, and more men in CEO roles than women, and TV drama shows with very few Muslims and homosexuals, and universities with fewer graduates from state than private school graduates.

Government regulations aside, society is the result of billions of individual choices made in transactions where both parties look to be made better off from the exchange. If many of those choices culminate in society having fewer of one identifiable group than the other, or more of one age group or gender than another, do not hastily assume it's a problem, much less a problem that ought to be, or even can be solved.