sheng116_cnythzlGetty Images_policy cnythzl/Getty Images

How Paradigm Blindness Leads to Bad Policy

Though we live in a highly complex, networked world, the paradigm that guides policymaking is largely linear, mechanical, and “rational.” This leaves us blind to the obvious – including our own blindness – and vulnerable to conceptual traps and collective-action problems.

HONG KONG – We live in an age of systemic gridlock, policy chaos, and sudden-shock failures. How is it possible that Afghan security forces – built and trained by the United States military at a cost of $83 billion over two decades – succumbed to a militia of fighters in pickup trucks in a mere 11 days? How could America’s best and brightest intelligence experts and military leaders have failed to foresee that the rapid withdrawal of US air support and reconnaissance would spell disaster for Afghanistan, and plan their retreat accordingly? Are these not examples of systemic failure?

Look at almost any crisis, and you will see multiple causes and drivers. That is as true for the situation in Afghanistan as it is for the COVID-19 pandemic – another multi-dimensional crisis for which there is no silver-bullet solution. Even carefully designed policies, motivated by the best of intentions, can fail to have the intended effect – and often exacerbate problems in unexpected ways – owing to implementation mistakes.

The problem can be boiled down to a complexity mismatch. The various crises and challenges we face – such as terrorism, pandemics, and disinformation – have viral, entangled qualities, and complex global networks allow locally generated problems to grow and spread much faster than solutions. Yet the paradigm on which we base our policymaking is linear, mechanical, and “rational.”

We hope you're enjoying Project Syndicate.

To continue reading, subscribe now.



Register for FREE to access two premium articles per month.