Department of Useful Concepts: The Corner Solution
A corner solution arises whenever, when faced with a tradeoff among two or more variables, we declare that one of the variables is to be minimized regardless of the state of all of the others. In public policy, some corner solutions are justified, but most are not.
“We have to control our borders” is one example of a corner solution. It posits that unauthorized border crossings are to be minimized, and it says nothing about the other factors that probably ought to be relevant to sound border policy — factors like expense, loss of civil liberties, collateral damage, our international reputation, and the sheer fact that without illegal immigrants, many sectors of the economy might entirely collapse. The corner solution ignores all that. In so doing, it obtains a clarity that may or may not be real, but that is politically very useful.
Clarity wins votes. The wonderful thing about a corner solution is that you can state it in seconds. It can be dropped into a 30-second TV ad with room to spare. It fits neatly into bumper stickers, tweets, and the mouths of talking heads. It sounds principled and high-minded, especially when the alternatives are more like “muddling through” or “benign neglect.” (Yet muddling through is how nearly all of us live, outside of mental institutions, and, really, nearly all neglect is benign.)
Other examples of corner solutions include zero-tolerance drug policies, the assassination of accused terrorists regardless of citizenship, and the best-interests-of-the-child standard in family law.
As I said, some corner solutions may be more justified than others. The point is to identify them and to realize that they have a political usefulness that usually far outruns their policy usefulness. A good bit of mental hygiene might simply be to ask oneself, whenever one’s policy preference can be described as a corner solution, whether that preference is held for its simplicity rather than its actual utility.