Solutionism as religion

Ron Rosenbaum echoes his friend Jeff Goldberg on the American tendency of “solutionism”:

Obama’s UN speech defined him as a solutionist. I envy him. I wish I were a solutionist. Do you know the word? I’ve often referred to “the American belief there’s a solution to every problem,” but I didn’t coin the word “solutionism” — although I wish I had.

I’m not sure he invented it, but the first of the some 4000-plus Google entries for “solutionism” (now 5000-plus since Obama’s speech — coincidence?) comes from my friend Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic*, writing about the Mideast. He calls solutionism “America’s national religion”: the compulsion to believe that, with good will and good faith, a solution to everything — even ancient hatreds — can be found. Maybe it’s because we’re too young a country to have experienced ancient hatreds, although we brought a lot over with us. Ancient hatreds will trump good will and good faith every time.

It’s this really very admirable “solutionism” that Obama demonstrated at the UN. The optimistic belief that with good will and good faith there’s a solution to every international problem, just as there’s a solution to health care somewhere in the 500 amendments to the Senate bill.

Later in his post:

At least the Irish had a tragic sense of life, one we lack and which thus makes us forever surprised and angry that a solution doesn’t magically appear despite our best efforts.Conservatives believe they have the solution; liberals believe they do. I believe that in many cases there is no good solution. … Why can’t people admit this? Look at the history of the past century — a hundred million dead in wars despite all the peace treaties and peace conferences and lip service paid to peace. Some things are irreconcilable and tragic and always will be. Get used to it. I didn’t say give up. Maybe next century only 90 million will die if we keep searching for a solution. On the other hand, don’t count on a smaller figure. I’m betting the over.

It’s hard to disagree that this mindset characterizes a lot of American political discourse.  Perhaps it’s something about the modern mind and democracy.  As Rosenbaum says, it’s rooted in an optimistic view of human nature.  It’s something that I probably fall into more than I realize.

Hat tip: Jeff Goldberg

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13 comments

  1. Great comment, Joel. 🙂 I don’t think I could be more apt or concise, so I’ll just comment upon what is, IMHO, confusing coinage.

    Except for the evil “compulsion” part, the explicit definition of “solutionism” sounds fine and dandy to me.

    But when they start applying this freshly coined term, it becomes clear that their definition was woefully incomplete in capturing their intent. When they use the word “solution” in their definition, they do not actually mean “solution” — rather, they mean “bad solution” or the inability to tell the difference. And when they say that a “solution to everything can be found” they implicitly append “by the state”.

    And with those two modifications — or actually, with *either* of those two modifications — solutionism becomes a very bad thing.

      • I was referring to Rosenbaum and Goldberg, though I probably shouldn’t have described it as “freshly coined”.

        Maybe I was being too picky, but it just struck me that the problem isn’t the optimistic belief in or search for solutions. The problem is looking to the State to solve everything for us, refusing to accept that doing nothing might actually be the best solution we have, or deluding ourselves into thinking we are making things better when we are actually making things worse.

  2. Joel, I agree that this mindset defines the Messianic state, a term that I am starting to get a better grasp of. Where do you draw the line between wise government policies that attempt to improve the lives of citizens and the actions of the messianic state?

  3. Like everything else it requires wisdom. There is no formula to guide a nation point by point through these things. I think it requires meditating on the law of the Lord day and night and applying wisdom to the tasks at hand.

  4. Rereading what I originally wrote, it sounds a bit harsh to me — woefully so. 🙂 I just meant that, while I agree with much of their criticism, I think they are overbroad in attributing it to the belief that there are always solutions to our problems.

    • Kevin, I think that there are multiple types of solutionism. Statist solutionism posits that state actions can solve our problems (If we just had this law, these regulations, these health-care reforms…). There is market solutionism (If we just cut taxes, reduce regulations…). I would not regard you as a market solutionist because in all of our talks you always have liberty rather than results as your priority — you recognize the risks and rewards rather than painting a universally rosy picture. Solutionists of any stripe promise that their solutions will lead to the rosy picture.

      In contrast, a more realistic view of human beings and societies, in my view, doesn’t stop working for good but also realizes that the perfect solution often doesn’t exist and that new solutions present new problems. I haven’t read Reinhold Niebuhr, but I think that this is one of his central arguments about human actions.

      • Very well said; I agree. I think it is that delusional “rosy picture” that best defines what they mean by “solutionism”.

        Thanks for mentioning Reinhold Niebuhr. I haven’t read him either, but I have heard variants of his “Serenity Prayer” which seems apt here:

        “””
        God, give us grace to accept with serenity
        the things that cannot be changed,
        courage to change the things
        which should be changed,
        and the wisdom to distinguish
        the one from the other.

        Living one day at a time,
        Enjoying one moment at a time,
        Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
        Taking, as Jesus did,
        This sinful world as it is,
        Not as I would have it,
        Trusting that You will make all things right,
        If I surrender to Your will,
        So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
        And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
        Amen.
        “””

  5. Joel, that seems like a good way to look at it. Given your views on democracy that we have talked about a little before, do you think that this is possible in a democracy? Or would you say that your conception of good government is one of the strongest arguments against democracy?

    • It is possible for the individual Christian in whatever office or function he is in to do these things, but I doubt that he can do much of ultimate worth in the constant flux that is a democracy.

      As I’ve indicated before, I don’t think the “neutral” state ruled by the whims of the sovereign people is ultimately compatible with a nation of Christians.

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