Occam’s razor for America

Listening this morning to Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America” radio talk show I heard a great discussion about the proper role for government. As is typical with this type of discussion, the analysis was in terms of which problems is government best suited to solve.

Occam’s razor

That brings me to the old but oft-used principles articulated by William of Occam (or Ockham)1 circa 1330, known as Occam’s Razor. Here is about the best explanation of Occam’s Razor which, in its explanation, makes clear why its application makes sense in problem-solving:

You’ve probably heard it before: The simplest explanation is usually the right one. Detectives use it to deduce who’s the likeliest suspect in a murder case — you know, the butler did it. Doctors ­use it to determine the illness behind a set of symptoms.

This line of reasoning is called Occam’s razor. It’s used in a wide variety of ways throughout the world as a means to slice through a problem or situation and eliminate unnecessary elements. But what we call the razor is a little different than what its author originally wrote. There are two parts that are considered the basis of Occam’s razor, and they were originally written in Latin:

  • The Principle of Plurality – Plurality should not be posited without necessity
  • The Principle of Parsimony – It is pointless to do with more what is done with less

Taken together, they represent the basis of humanity’s investigation into the universe, and the way we see our environment is largely based upon Occam’s razor. There’s no telling what kind of world we would live in today without Occam’s razor. Would we have the Internet? Would we have inoculations?

via HowStuffWorks “How Occam’s Razor Works”. (Accessed 12/2/2011)

Application to America

What does this have to do with America? Simply put, everything. My thesis is that America, and its people, is all about problem-solving and that it has been successful in doing so. That “Yankee ingenuity” has brought us marvelous machines, medicines, processes and a way of life unequaled (inclusive of its faults) in the history of the world. All of that has been the product of solving problems:  identify the problem, search for solutions, decide a course of action, develop a solution, and then implement it.

Can Government apply Occam’s razor?

How much of that progress has been due to individual/corporate effort and how much to government effort? The correlative question is: what is the proper role of government?

If Occam’s razor makes any sense — and it does — then does government apply it? Can government apply it? Let’s look again at the underlying principles of Occam’s razor:

  • The Principle of Plurality – Plurality should not be posited without necessity
  • The Principle of Parsimony – It is pointless to do with more what is done with less

First, the Principle of Plurality:  Government is the “poster boy” of plurality. We have multiple levels of government from municipality to federal and layers within each level. The multiplicity of federal government programs dealing with identical issues is legend. Government therefore fails that principle.

Then what about the Principle of Parsimony?2 Can anyone seriously argue that government follows the “quality of being careful with money or resources” or utilizes “economy in the muse of means to an end?”  No, government — especially in the hands of idealogues — develops an end (i.e. a policy goal) and justifies every conceivable means in advancing that end. Clearly, government fails that principle as well.


Conclusion

The inescapable conclusion is that individuals, American citizens, acting individually and corporately (meaning not only business corporations but civic organizations like Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis, like charities, and like churches) have been more able, more often, to effectively solve real (as opposed to perceived) problems and it may be through the frequent adherence to Occam’s razor. Much to the displeasure of many in power and loud voice today, that success has occurred within the free enterprise system. Is that system perfect? Heck no? Is there a better way? Possibly, but it’s not through massive government that apparently has the singular goal of becoming the consummate nanny-state.

Government is inherently incapable of solving problems the way that individuals can do.

Application of “OR” to fix government

Therefore, we must apply Occam’s razor to government and that can (must!) be done in two veins:

  1. Eliminating areas in which government is involved (Dept of Energy, Dept of Education for examples), and
  2. Eliminating the redundant departments, agencies, commissions, offices and people running the incessant mix-master of ideas and faux solutions.

Our Republic started off in the right direction with the devised government:  small and simple. It was designed to do just the few things that only a central government can do well (e.g. defense). We need to be moving back that direction.

By the way, in case you still have not fully understood Occam’s razor, you may also recognize it under the euphemism of KISS:  Keep It Simple Stupid.

Occam’s razor (“OR”) in current application

The OR theory may have originated in 1330 with ol’ Bill, but it is in active use today in many places other than government. For example, much of the decision tree analysis performed today is based upon OR. See, for example, the tutorials at the Decision Trees and Data Mining sitediscussing OR in its application to decision trees.

Decision Tree Occam s Tree 2a
Click for larger image
English: A manually drawn decision tree diagra...
Hand drawn decision tree. Click for larger.

The “Occam’s Tree” software is designed to automate decision tree analysis, as are many other programs in the “mind-mapping” genre of software. Of course, one can always get a flip chart and do it as seen in the image to the right. I personally have used Freemind and am currently using Freeplane, each very flexible mind-mapping tools that are free of cost. Extending those concepts to result in a mind-blowing, mind-mapping, knowledge management, decision tree tool is  Personal Brain which I utilize extensively every day.

See Visionary Tools-Occam’s Tree for more extensive discussions on using such tools in various management decision processes.

Each of those is a tool through which one may better achieve the principles of Occam’s razor.

Resources

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  1. William of Ockham, born in the village of Ockham in Surrey (England) about 1285, see http://wotug.org/parallel/www/occam/occam-bio.html
  2. 1  (a) : the quality of being careful with money or resources:  thrift (b) : the quality or state of being stingy 2: economy in the use of means to an end; especially :economy of explanation in conformity with Occam’s razor. via www.merriam-webster.com

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