Why do we fear innovative public policy? The solutions to many of the problems we face today could be found in such innovation.
The main barrier in the way of innovative public policy is the counterintuitive nature of many solutions. It’s hard for us to envision solutions that seem to go against everything we have been taught.
For instance, Ronald Reagan famously informed us “Government is not the solution to our problem, Government is the problem.” His declaration was clear, easy to understand, and easy to believe. We can see examples where our government steered us in the wrong direction and became the problem.
With this understanding of government, it is incredibly hard to see the obvious instances when more government could be part of the solution to a problem. Fixing our healthcare system is a perfect example of this. All available evidence convincingly illustrates government-run healthcare systems produce higher quality, better access to care, and are significantly less expensive than our system in the U.S. Despite this, we cannot seem to wrap our heads around these facts. They simply run counter to what our intuition, and so many politicians and pundits tell us.
Another prime example is the War on Drugs. Right now, the country is in the throes of an opioid epidemic. Experts and our government have taught for over a century now that drugs are bad, and drug users require punishment to mend the error of their ways. The idea of decriminalizing or even legalizing some drugs as the answer to this problem is completely ludicrous to us. How could that ever solve anything?
Yet, that is exactly the solution the people of Portugal chose. They responded to their heroin epidemic by decriminalizing heroin and all other drugs and investing heavily in drug treatment. As a result, they have lower drug use and abuse rates than we do, and their financial cost of fighting drugs has fallen compared to our continually rising costs.
We need innovative leaders.
Solving complex problems requires thinking about the problem in completely counterintuitive ways. It involves innovative public policy and innovation in the private sector. The only way that becomes comfortable for us is when those who influence us show us the way. It requires lawmakers, the media, celebrities, educators, and other influencers to be brave and bold. Under courageous direction, we can change the rules of the game.
One thing I learned growing up is things are the way they are. It isn’t worth yours or anyone else’s time to try to change that. There is a certain way you act, a certain way you speak, and certain expectations you should have of everyone you meet.
Most of us live in the box. The box is what we know. It brings order from chaos, safety from danger, familiarity to combat the unknown. It is where we belong.
I recently applied for an award that would help me complete my first novel. I didn’t get it. Among the several reasons given by the committee for denying my application, one sticks out. They said they “question the ambitious nature of the project.”
I know exactly what they mean. My idea is too far out of the box. The moment I read that line, I realized just how miserable I have been in the box. It’s stifling. It’s boring. It’s loud. It’s crowded. It is devoid of new ideas.
At the same time, it’s comfortable. As a middle-aged, upper-middle class white guy, I fit perfectly in here. If I play by the rules and follow the pack, I will live and die comfortably. I won’t ruffle any feathers or rock any boats. Everyone will comment about how well I have lived my life.
For most people, I can see how this is a perfectly acceptable situation. After all, it pushes against our human nature to seek out discomfort. If the box is working for us, why climb out?
That is exactly the point that makes me so uncomfortable about the box. We fail to see when it is not working. We think everything is just fine and blind ourselves to the ways the box is horribly broken.
We hold on to the way things have always been for far too long, hoping against logic that things will stay just as they are “supposed to be”.
When we do sense that something is wrong, our first reaction is actually to retreat further into the box. We search for the path that will keep us moving in the direction we thought we were supposed to be going. Surely, we just need to work harder at our jobs, pray harder…do what we have been told. We have to trust the box.
The thing is, I’m just not buying it anymore. As the years have passed, I have spent more and more time looking outside of these comfortable confines for better answers. Inside the box, we treat societal challenges as perpetual neighbors. We will always have poverty, always have war, always have those who receive a top-rate education and those who don’t. It is simply the way things are.
Inside the box, this line of thinking is perfectly reasonable. Outside of the box, it is completely ridiculous. Outside of the box, we can separate ourselves from the crowds and the noise that keep us from envisioning what is possible. We can see what could be. We don’t just see problems, we see solutions.
What would the world be like if more of us spent time climbing those walls and freeing ourselves from what is? Could we find new ways forward? Could we change our world for the better? I think we absolutely would.
As this New Year begins, I know exactly where I plan to stand, and I’m taking my ambitious projects with me.