Here is a related example from Teen Births and the Complexities of Culture by Ross Douthat. The teen birth rate has fallen nearly 40% in the six years between 2007 and 2013. Great news. How did that happen and can we replicate it for out-of-wedlock births, another social pathology with gargantuan consequences? Douthat suggests that the circumstances leading to reduced teen births cannot be replicated for out-of-wedlock births.
This seems like a suitably-humble read on the available data, but as you’d expect I have a few less-immediately-measurable theories about what’s going on here. The first is that we shouldn’t underestimate the behavior-shaping power of a cultural consensus: We live in a society that’s deeply, anxiously divided over issues related to sexual activity and childbearing, but the idea that we should (and, just as importantly, can) reduce the teen birth rate unites just about every faction in American politics and culture, from abstinence pledgers to Bloombergist technocrats to left-wing sex educators, and done so has more or less since the teen birth rate spiked in the 1980s. (Even in Hollywoodland, where permissiveness generally rules the day, quickie divorces and unwed baby bumps are unremarkable, but pregnant teenage starlets and heartthrob baby daddies − for sound careerist reasons, of course − are vanishingly rare.)One take-away from this essay is the suggestion that too often we divide ourselves and argue to the point of inaction based on the means to an end when we both agree on the end. If our political leaders would spend more time exploring where there is agreement on the goals and then exploring the means to achieve those ends, we might be far better off. We also too quickly fall into false-choices. Does it matter which strategy, abstinence or contraception, is the best mitigator when both work well under different circumstances?
True, this consensus’s “red” and “blue” variations, emphasizing chastity and contraception, are very different on the extremes (and the influence of pro-life sentiment may play an interesting role that’s too complicated to get into here) … but they blur together in many contexts, and even when left and right promote radically different means the basic message and sought-after end is much the same: However you manage to avoid getting pregnant as a teenager, avoid it you definitely should. And as Kliff notes, both emphases have seen results: teen contraceptive use has increased overall since the ’80s and teen sexual activity has been increasingly delayed, more high schoolers are virgins, etc.
The problem is that there is money in focusing on the means and there is very little soft corruption in focusing on the goals. There are plenty of motivated actors who have a stake in the means to solving a problem as opposed to figuring which problems to solve and openly-mindedly figuring out how to solve them.
The other take-away is that all the different, complex, dynamic social pathologies have different attributes and different root causes from one another and over time. Its not an engineering problem where a static problem can be solved, the solution tested, and then deployed for uniform outcomes. With social policies, there are probably some very generic macro-lessons to be learned, but most likely there is relatively little knowledge that can be effectively transferred from one arena to another. I suspect that what we often refer as an inability to scale (what ones on a small scale does not work on a large scale) might really be masking the fact that there actually different problems.