Everyone’s got troubles. But what separates personal and family difficulties from “social problems”?

Social problems, as a genre of concern and topic of discussion, form in at least two ways.

One is when a specific variety of troubles experienced by individuals and sub-groups in society appear salient because of their sheer number, called to our attention by their similarities. When extreme problems are of the same type and shared by many people, then we regard them as “social” even if non-similar and widely varied personal problems far outnumber the similar ones.

Another is when government, spurred by activists or politicians or both, try to solve these problems with policy, by heeding politicians’ hortatory to “come together” and present a united front, etc. And use the threat and application of force to redistribute wealth, set up bureaucracies, and regiment people’s behavior.

The second usually only happens after the first. 

An example of this trend can be seen in suicide. My neighbor’s suicide may very well be a family and community tragedy, a cause for sorrow and anguish. But only when seven or seven hundred unrelated people in the community kill themselves do we have a social problem that politicians and activists exploit with some plausibility.

Another example would be drugs. If I overdose on an obscure prescription drug, that is a personal and family matter. But if I overdose on a common prescription or recreational drug that other users also abuse to the point of tragedy, then it sure seems social.

That is how we get “mental health” crusades and the War on Drugs.

But in both cases other troubles suffered by individuals far outnumber these troubles. The disparity of reaction should be clear, however, We only publicly focus on what we can easily identify. That makes the difference. Indeed, we must find a pattern to see a problem worth solving; similarities provide the most obvious pattern.

Thus, what we have here is a focusing problem. Because we tend not to even see the most common pains and sufferings of most people most of the time, we do not regard them as social problems worth collective action: they are too disparate, not fit to be organized against with a blanket “solution.”

This blindness to the bulk of would-be “social problems” is probably a blessing. 

Most people solve most problems personally, locally. And considering the common failures of most public programs — as in Prohibition and the War on Drugs — it may very well be that the real tragedy is the diversion of our attention away from personal and local problem-solving to public policy and politics and government. 

So, social problems are identified by means of cognitive short-cuts that do not appear soberly rational. And, considering the usual policy outcomes, we should ask the next question: isn’t governments’ overstepping their zones of competence the real social problem?