RALEIGH – Several years ago, I wrote a column that presented political debate as a struggle between two schools of thought about the complexity of political issues.

One group, I wrote, essentially believes that social problems have simple explanations and solutions. The other believes that social problems are so complex that both explanation and solution often prove elusive.

Shockingly, the terms I coined to describe the dichotomy – simplicists vs. complexicists – never caught on. Can’t imagine why. Still, I think the distinction continues to be a revealing one. Here is how I described it back then:

Simplicists believe that public-policy problems have singular, all-encompassing solutions. For example, modern-day liberal simplicists see poor, single moms and want to give them money confiscated from those who earned it. Modern-day conservative simplicists see poor, single moms and want to get them married. Simplicists tend to focus on what is immediate and visible, missing or downplaying what may be eventual and invisible. They see gas prices rise and think government should cap them, not realizing that gas prices convey useful information about demand and scarcity that, if suppressed by regulation, will fail to induce change in consumer and producer behavior, thus ensuring more scarcity and even-higher prices in the long run.

Simplicists can also be conspiracy theorists, though they need not be. What exemplifies political simplicism is an image of society as a machine that, when operating “normally,” is quiet, frictionless, and productive. Economic or social problems represent symptoms that something has upset the machine’s default setting, a loose wire or a faulty switch. Fix it, and the machine will go back to purring, whirring, and spitting out widgets as before.

Complexicists know better. They know that societies are not machines, that the best analogies for them are organic, not mechanical. Societies are formed by longstanding institutions and ever-changing social relationships among diverse, ever-changing individuals. Because human beings are flawed creatures that make mistakes, all the institutions they create and sustain will be inherently flawed, never yielding the perfection imagined in ivory towers.

In the example of poverty, for example, complexicists recognize that temporary bouts of poverty, brought on by sudden economic or personal reversals, may occur in populations who differ markedly from the population of chronically poor people, whose behavior is often self-destructive and cyclical. They can spot the various roles that education, economic growth, drugs, physical and mental illness, religion, development patterns, racial and ethnic conflicts, diet, and technology play in triggering and lengthening spells of poverty.

Another area where you can clearly see a division between the simple and the complex is energy policy. Surely, the simple-oriented analyst argues, if we mandate that homes, businesses, and vehicles become more energy-efficient, we can reduce the consumption of fuel and its unwanted side effects.

But those who appreciate complexity recognize that efficiency gains don’t just affect how much energy it takes to do a given amount of work. They can affect how much work is demanded. As cars become more efficient, motorists often drive more. As industrial machinery becomes more efficient, businesses operate them more hours each day.

Another application of the principle is in wind energy. If you want to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions, one straightforward solution would seem to be to replace the burning of coal with wind turbines. Obviously, the latter don’t generate emissions during their operation, though you would have to account for any emissions generated during the construction of the wind-power plant.

The issue is far more complex, however. Because wind is an intermittent power source, utilities have to make other sources available to fill in the gaps. From a Environment & Climate News article about recent research by electrical engineer Kent Hawkins:

Because wind speeds are variable and unpredictable, plant operators were forced frequently to vary the ordinarily steady, constant generation of baseload power to back up variable wind power. Whereas a small amount of wind power generation helped reduce carbon dioxide emissions, emissions began surpassing prior levels once wind power exceeded 5 percent of the power mix.

“The efficiency of those carbon-based [baseload] plants is affected by incorporating wind energy into the system,” explained Hawkins. “When a plant’s efficiency is reduced, its fuel consumption and emissions increase, causing unintended consequences that wind proponents do not disclose. Requiring even larger amounts of renewable energy through renewable portfolio standards will only exacerbate this problem.”

JLF’s Daren Bakst has written extensively about the real effects of renewable-portfolio standards. They are complex, and on balance unwelcome. Simplistic promises are no substitute for the careful analysis of complex issues.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.