The Secretary's Fallacy

Written on 2021-09-17

On our recent holiday, my family and I finally finished watching season 3 of “Madam Secretary”, a TV series about a fictitious US Secretary of State and her family and staff. It's a great series that we really enjoyed, particularly for the way it combines political, familial, and spy thriller plotlines. However, towards the end, I was getting a bit frustrated: having apparently exhausted their other ideas, the script writers had their protagonist solve a new major world problem in every episode. Peace between Israel and Iran? Done. A comprehensive international climate change agreement? Done. Reconciliation in the Colombian civil war? Done. All inside of forty minutes.

This is not how life works. But often we like to believe that it is. In fact, many of the political opinions I hear voiced around me are predicated on the implicit assumption that every problem has a solution, and that many of our problems would have been sorted out long ago if only our politicians would earnestly and honestly apply themselves to solving them. Secretary McCord is the embodiment of this view of politics, and so, with apologies to Téa Leoni, I'd like to call this the “Secretary's Fallacy”.

The antithesis to this fallacy is summed up well by historian Bret Devereaux: “The existence of a problem does not always imply the existence of a solution.” In the following, I want to show why the Secretary's Fallacy is wrong, why it's harmful, and finally, what a more realistic and constructive attitude to politics and societal problems might look like.

The Secretary's Problems

The central idea of “Madam Secretary” is that the protagonist is not, in fact, a politician. Trained as a CIA analyst, she works as a university lecturer when we first meet her. It is only when the current Secretary of State dies that the President, her former boss at the CIA, nominates her as the successor. Thus she comes into office with a good knowledge of geopolitical affairs, but without direct experience of electoral politics. This allows the show's directors to set her up as an anti-politician: she thinks outside the box, cares deeply about peoples' fates, is scrupulously honest, and always wants to do the right thing rather than the politically expedient thing. In short, she is everything politicians are supposedly not—and the show sets up an explicit contrast between her and the career politicians around her.

Coming from this background, she handles one international problem after the other. With predictable routine, the series presents her with a convoluted problem, has her find a novel solution, and then implement that solution with a mix of inspirational persuasion, quid-pro-quo bargaining, or good old carrot-and-stick diplomacy. (Yes, the series really is worth watching, I'm afraid I'm doing it an injustice here by picking on its weakest point like this…)

Although most viewers will recognise that it would probably take a bit longer than forty minutes to achieve “Peace in the Middle East”, I think the key issue here is not the rapidity with which Secretary McCord solves her problems. Rather, the fundamental error is the assumption that these problems can be solved at all.

Quite frankly, many problems we face are simply not solvable, or at least not yet. Why is that? Several reasons. First: given a social or political problem, can we actually envision an ideal solution? (Defined as a state of affairs in which the legitimate interests of all affected parties are adequately addressed.) Second: even if we know, or think we know, what such a solution could look like, can we implement it? Given the constraints of our political and social system, can we bring about the necessary change to reach this desired state of affairs? And third: can we at least improve the current situation? Even if we don't know of any feasible ideal solution, is there something we can do to make things better?

Nothing guarantees us that the answer to any of these questions is “yes”. The world we live in is incredibly complicated. Human affairs are incredibly complicated. And the more people are affected, the more complicated things become. To continue Devereaux's quote above:

“It is possible, and perfectly valid to say ‘this is bad and it should stop’ and yet conclude in the same breath that there are few or no actions ‘we’ can take which wouldn't just make things worse.”

Real-world problems

Gemeinsam hat man auch das größte Geheimnis von allen überdeckt: Dass schlicht niemand, also wirklich niemand, genau wissen kann, wie das genau funktionieren soll: eine Demokratie, die so schnell handelt, wie man handeln müsste. Eine Industrienation, die nicht nur ohne Emissionen, sondern ohne irgendeinen Anspruch auf ökologischen Ressourcenverschleiß auskommt. (!5802070/)

Tagged as politics, essay

Unless otherwise credited all material Creative Commons License by Daniel Vedder.
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