We take painkillers to cure our back pain.
The Democrats blame Donald Trump for everything that’s wrong with America.
Donald Trump wants to “defeat ISIS” to keep America safe.
We look for a solution to life’s problems at the bottom of a bottle.
In each of these cases, we confuse the symptom for the cause.
Painkillers won’t cure our back pain; the source is elsewhere. Donald Trump is a symptom, not the cause, of the current state of American politics. Depleting the ranks of ISIS leaves intact the disease that created ISIS in the first place. Alcohol might temporarily depress your anxiety, but it’s no long-term solution to your troubles.
A casual look at modern history confirms these conclusions.
We believed that foreign drug cartels were responsible for America’s drug problem, but eradicating the cartels didn’t cure our addiction. We assumed that once Bin Laden fell, radical Islamic terrorism would fall with him. Saddam Hussein’s ouster would liberate the oppressed people of Iraq and spark democratic movements across the entire Middle East. So much for that fantasy.
There’s an intuitive appeal to the strategy of attacking the symptom. The symptoms are obvious. They have a face and a name. The destruction of the symptoms by a Navy Seal team or a Tomahawk cruise missile can be showcased in all their high-definition glory. Crushing a personalized enemy pays dividends at the ballot box.
In contrast, long-term solutions to deep-rooted causes aren’t sexy. They can’t be televised. They don’t make for good stump speeches. Curing the cause is much more difficult than eliminating the symptom.
More importantly, some other person gets the credit for long-term solutions that get at the heart of causes. Unlike a far-sighted commercial investor interested in the financial benefits of a long-term investment, politicians are more focused on the short term and the next election cycle. They sell the public on simplistic solutions that yield short-term reprieve.
But here’s the problem.
When we treat only the symptom, the cause remains intact. When we pretend that curing the symptom will also eliminate the cause, we end up masking the cause. Treating the symptom gives us the self-satisfaction of “doing something” about the problem, but we’re only kidding ourselves.
What’s worse, these short-term solutions exacerbate the problem in the long-term.
Killing Mr. Bad gives rise to Mr. Worse. al Qaeda is replaced by ISIS and bin Laden by al-Baghdadi.
Unwittingly, we unleash a Darwinian process of creating a more perfect enemy. The new group and its new leaders are more vicious, more capable, and more insidious than the ones they replaced.
The cancer keeps coming back.
Look past the immediate symptom and ask why the symptom exists in the first place.
The first answer to the “why” question is almost always the symptom, not the cause.
So ask “why” multiple times until you unroot the cause.
Then, get ready to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work.