I got to interview Russ Roberts about this book in a Sadie Hawkins Day kind
of podcast, where the guest gets to ask the questions and the host gives the answers.
That podcast, EconTalk, has at least 50,000 regular listeners, and more than
120,000 listeners for some of its episodes. In my interview, I asked a question that
many people have asked me, about Russ. Pretending to be young Russ (c. 1992),
I asked, Do you remember exactly when you stopped being an economist?
The reason people want to ask this is that Russs personal journey (that
sounds all New Age, but in this case its accurate) started with the strait-laced
orthodoxy of a Chicago School student of Gary Becker and has now delivered
Wild Problems, a book that 1992 Russ would have derided as a cynical ploy to
earn extra money writing a self-help book, because those sell better than economic
One can see the difficulty of the problem here: Roberts never actually defines
wild problems, even though thats the name of the book. The closest he comes
is to define tame problems: those choices where evidence, knowledge, and the
relentless applications of science, engineering, and rational thought leads to steady
progress (p. 3). Wild problems are, then, problems that are not tame, meaning that
the application of formulaic rationality, or the accumulation of data, is not only not
helpful but is likely to be misleading. A wild problem [is] a fork in the road of life
where knowing which is the right one isnt obvious [and] where the path we choose
defines who we are and who we might become (p. 2).
There are quite a few examples that clarify the difference between tame problems
and wild problems, and in many cases the wild problem is either just more
fundamental or temporally antecedent. For example, suppose I got into two different
graduate programs, Stanford and Chicago. The wild problem is Which graduate
program should I attend? The tame problem would be Given that I decided to go
to ________, how will I get there safely and quickly?
Its tempting to say the wild problem is harder (whatever that even means), but
thats not true. I could decide the wild problem with a coin flip, Heads, Stanford;
tails, Chicago! Roberts quotes (p. 43) the physicist/poet Piet Hein, who observed
that using a coin helps you know what you hope. If the coin comes up tails, and you
are disappointed, you really wanted to go to Stanford. (For the text of the poem, click here).
Once you have decided on Chicago (or Stanford) then the problem of getting
there is actually pretty hard, and you can flip a coin all you want, and it still wont
pack your stuff or tell you what route to take. The difference is not hard or easy,
but whether the terms or objectives are clearly defined, and it is clear what it means
to fail (I ended up in St. Louis!) or succeed. Roberts notes that the University of
Chicago (I guess thats where Russs graduate school coin flip told him to go) has
on a building that quotes from Lord Kelvin, on measurement. It is
worth giving the whole quote here, for context:
I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and
express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot
measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of
a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge,
but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the state of Science,
whatever the matter may be. [Public Lecture before the Institution of
Civil Engineers, London (3 May 1883), on Electrical Units of Measurement,
collected in Popular Lectures and Addresses (1889), Vol. 1, 8081,
Another Chicagoan, economist Jacob Viner, is said to have offered up a sage addendum:
Even when you can measure a thing, when you can express it in numbers, our
knowledge will be meager and unsatisfactory. To which another Chicago economist,
Frank Knight, supposedly added, If you cannot measure, measure anyhow.
(All quoted in Gwynne Nettler, Boundaries of Competence: Knowing the Social with
Science, Transaction Publishers, 2003, p. 60).
It is this last impulseif you cannot measure, or if you cannot add up costs
and benefits, then you must measure and add up costs and benefits anyhow!
against which Wild Problems is directed. If you cant measure, dont pretend you
can, and above all dont let your decision be driven by the arbitrary dictates of a false
specificity of rationality.
One of the tropes that often comes up on EconTalk is the Chesterton Fence.
Russ discusses the Chesterton Fence in Wild Problems (p. 107), noting that if
a norm or rule makes no sense to you, you cant assume it serves no purpose.
Prudence requires one to not tear the fence down until its purpose can be
Human emotions and intuition are often derided as irrational, but it is obvious
that our moral sense is an important Chesterton Fence. Evolution selected for
making the right choices, or at a minimum not making bad choices. Avoiding bad
choices is much more important than being able to articulate the reasons why a
choice is being made. The Cartesian impulse of radical skepticism, insisting that we
only know things for which we can give explicit and logical reasons, is tearing
down perhaps the biggest Chesterton Fence of all. The feeling that something is just
right, or is just wrong, even if you cant say why, cannot be dismissed. The connection
between wild problems and emotions is obvious: the reason Piet Heins coin
trick works is that you feel disappointment, not that you can enter into a spreadsheet
the reasons why you prefer that outcome.
Roberts lists several problems, some of which seem to have little in common.
But what they have in common is that they are all wild. Some of the best advice
amounts to erecting new Chesterton Fences of your own, in the form of what I would
call metaprinciples. What I mean is that wild problems resist analysis, so deploying
metaprinciples is a different way to organize your consideration of what to do. One
of these, which Roberts calls privilege your principles, is just such a metaprinciple,
prodding the chooser to make a constant choice about what sort of person to be. If
that principle is honesty, for example, then there arent really many choices left at
the day-to-day level. I do what an honest person would do in this situation, and its
usually clear what that is.
If you find a wallet, and it is possible (though perhaps not easy) to identify
the owner, then an honest person would try to return the wallet. And so, you
should, too. No probabilistic consideration of how likely you are to get away with
simply keeping it, or speculations about your needs relative to those of the wallet
owner. Its not your wallet, and it would be wrong to keep. Give it back. Next
This approach of applying metaprinciples, in effect having given prior consideration
to situations and reaching conclusions about how to act, is akin to Aristotles
exhortation to cultivate a character of virtue so that doing the right thing simply
becomes a habit. If my immanent metaprinciple is to have clear principles, selected
to make of myself the person I aspire to become, then over time the application of
these principles becomes routine, literally habitual. This seems to take away moral
agency, and hence praiseworthiness, from ones actions, but exactly the opposite is
true. Virtue is not treating each situation in our lives as unique, one-off contexts
in which one gives deep thought to many measurable factors and then does the
right thing. Ive always liked Durants version: We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. (Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy:
The Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers, revised ed. [New York: Simon &
Schuster, 1933], p. 98).
This invocation as habit as a guide to a moral life has important connections
to the literature of liberty, in ways that are not always recognized. Alfred North
Whitehead famously lauded the importance of (accurate) habits over the application
It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by
eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate
the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the
case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations
which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations
of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle they are strictly limited
in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive
moments. (An Introduction to Mathematics [New York: Holt Publishers,
1911], p. 145)
This claim was famously extended by Friedrich A. Hayek, who said:
We make constant use of formulas, symbols and rules whose meaning we
do not understand and through the use of which we avail ourselves of the
assistance of knowledge which individually we do not possess. We have
developed these practices and institutions by building upon habits and
institutions which have proved successful in their own sphere and which
have in turn become the foundation of the civilization we have built up.
(The Use of Knowledge in Society, American Economic Review, 1945,
These observations about the emergent properties of good institutions need to
be understood as applying also, even more so, to Robertss wild problems. When
we privilege [our] principles, we are establishing a rebuttable presumption in
favor of simply obeying our intuitive, habitual propensity to be honest, or charitable,
and to do the right thing without thinking, provided we have in fact cultivated
And thats the point: we should do that. A consciously cultivated habit of doing
the right thing without thinking about it makes wild problems easier, not harder. To
do otherwise actually expands the set of wild problems and makes your life much
worse. Should I have an affair with the willing spouse of a friend? Well, we could
add up the costs and benefits (We wont get caught; My/their spouse doesnt love
me/them; Marriage is an archaic institution), which is ridiculous. Its simple: You
made a promise. A presumption in favor of honesty and loyalty disallows thinking of
costs and benefits in the first place.
The worst thing is that if we do resort to costs and benefits, or some complex
set of excuses and contingent easements on our principles, we are clever enough to be able to justify suspending morality entirely. The problem was recognized by Adam
Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:
Though the end of the rules of justice be, to hinder us from hurting our
neighbour, it may frequently be a crime to violate them, though we could
pretend, with some pretext of reason, that this particular violation could
do no hurt. A man often becomes a villain the moment he begins, even
in his own heart, to chicane in this manner. The moment he thinks of
departing from the most staunch and positive adherence to what those
inviolable precepts prescribe to him, he is no longer to be trusted, and no
man can say what degree of guilt he may not arrive at. The thief imagines
he does no evil, when he steals from the rich, what he supposes they may
easily want, and what possibly they may never even know has been stolen
from them. The adulterer imagines he does no evil, when he corrupts the
wife of his friend, provided he covers his intrigue from the suspicion of
the husband, and does not disturb the peace of the family. When once
we begin to give way to such refinements, there is no enormity so gross
of which we may not be capable. (Theory of Moral Sentiments, part III,
chapter 5 [New York: Oxford University Press, 1976], pp. 17576;
Roberts argues that there are two virtues for the metaprinciple privilege your
The first is simplicity, because you wont get caught up in complex considerations
about exceptions and justifications, which are susceptible to our own
clever abilities to chicane in this manner, as Smith put it in the quote above.
The second is becoming, which is fascinating. Roberts argues it this way: acting
as if a particular rule is the sort of person I am results in that becoming a habit.
And once the habit of right action is just something you act on without thinking, you
are in fact the person you wanted to become. The habit of acting well is actually better
than using judgment in every case, because your judgment is fallible, and prone to
self-deceit. No one is good enough to do the right thing if they stop and add up
the costs and benefits. Good habits mean sometimes you act well when you didnt
really have to do the right thing. That seems like a cost, but when you think about
it, its a significant benefit on its own terms.
I hope the book sells well, but not because (Russ 1992 was wrong) its a selfhelp
book; it isnt. It is instead a deep contemplation on the larger question of how
cost-benefit analysis misleads us on addressing problems in our lives, whether those
problems are personal, cultural, or political. Wild problems are everywhere. Solving
them is both easier, and harder, than we think.