Who Am I?

I’m Charles Fain Lehman, a Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, where I work primarily on our Policing and Public Safety Initiative, and a Contributing Editor of City Journal. I am a policy analyst by trade, thinking about social problems and how to make them better from both a quantitative and journalistic perspective. My interests are generally at the intersection of policy and pathology: the causes, consequences, and control of death, crime, drugs, sex, and violence. My work has appeared in outlets including the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, National Review, the New York Post, and elsewhere. I have discussed policy issues before the House of Representatives and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

What is this Substack for?

Writing for a popular audience requires adhering to certain conventions—of style, yes, but also of relevance, formality, and brevity. If I want to publish an article about a big idea, I am constrained by the need to relate it to events in the world, as well as by the expectation that I will make the point in a way that will not bore an unfamiliar audience.

These are not unreasonable constraints: I am not the sort of person who merits unlimited column inches, granted indiscriminately. But the virtue of blogging—and a Substack is essentially a blog—is that it dispenses with these constraints. Because the audience has, as it were, signed up for this, it grants the license to think out loud, informally, and without constraints on length or relevance.

My intention with this Substack is as a home for writing projects which fit this mold: ideas too verbose, or too disorganized, or too irrelevant to merit getting paid for, but which I would still like to put out into the world. That means some of it will be strange or dull or bad. But my hope is that some of it also will be exciting and different and not something the reader can get anywhere else.

What is the “Causal Fallacy?”

The problem lies in confusing causal analysis with policy analysis. Causal analysis attempts to find the source of human activity in those factors which themselves are not caused—which are, in the language of sociologists, “independent variables.” Obviously nothing can be a cause if it is in turn caused by something else; it would then only be an “intervening variable.” But ultimate causes cannot be the object of policy efforts precisely because, being ultimate, they cannot be changed. For example, criminologists have shown beyond doubt that men commit more crimes than women and younger men more (of certain kinds) than older ones. It is a theoretically important and scientifically correct observation. Yet it means little for policymakers concerned with crime prevention since men cannot be changed into women nor made to skip over the adolescent years. Not every primary cause is itself unchangeable: the cause of air pollution is (in part) certain gases in automobile exhausts, and thus reducing those gases by redesigning the engine will reduce pollution. But social problems—that is to say, problems occasioned by human behavior rather than mechanical processes—are almost invariably caused by factors that cannot be changed easily or at all, because human behavior ultimately derives from human volition—tastes, attitudes, values, or whatever—and these aspects of volition are in turn formed either entirely by choice or are the product of biological or social processes that we cannot or will not change.

It is the failure to understand this point that leads statesman and citizen alike to commit the causal fallacy—to assume that no problem is adequately addressed unless its causes are eliminated. The preamble to the UNESCO charter illustrates the causal fallacy: “Since wars begin in the minds of men it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” Yet the one thing we cannot easily do, if at all, is change, by plan and systematically, the minds of men. If peace can only be assured by doing what we cannot do, then we can never have peace. If we regard any crime-prevention or crime-reduction program as defective because it does not address the “root causes” of crime, then we shall commit ourselves to futile acts that frustrate the citizen while they ignore the criminal.

- James Q. Wilson, “Crime and the Criminologists,” Commentary (July 1974)

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Charles Fain Lehman is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor of City Journal. His Substack is at thecausalfallacy.com.