Keyhole solution

A keyhole solution is a way of thinking that targets problems narrowly instead of taking more drastic measures. The Open Borders: The Case page on keyhole solutions, focusing specifically on keyhole solutions in liberalizing migration, explains:

The term “keyhole solutions” is used for the radical idea of targeting specific problems through narrow, targeted solutions rather than trying to restrict or control unrelated activity. In the context of migration, they involve taxing or restricting specific problematic migrant activities rather than a blanket denial of migration.

It is important to keep in mind that “ ‘[k]eyhole solutions’ represent a way of thinking, rather than specific proposals”: “Keyhole solutions are not specific policy ideas, but rather, represent a way of thinking that can be used to generate and justify policy proposals. Keyhole solutions associated with different problems can sometimes be contradictory.”1 Keyhole solutions can even be used to argue for opposite positions depending on what the original action in consideration is.

In the context of cause prioritization, keyhole solutions can provide new ways of thinking about causes. In particular, any contentious cause that involves political change or advances in technology will have arguments against it that call for a blanket denial of that change or technology (e.g. by banning research or distribution). In these cases, keyhole solutions are useful for exploring ways around the blanket denial by targeting more specific problems that appear as a result of the change or technology.

Examples of keyhole solutions

Open borders

Open Borders: The Case has detailed coverage on their Keyhole solutions page.

Paul Crider writes that keyhole solutions “come in many flavors but can be summarized as follows: for a criticism or fear of open borders, X, one can often posit a keyhole solution, K(X), which mitigates or removes the (perceived) problem of X while still retaining freedom of movement across national borders. A common example is, for the contention that immigrants will drain the host nation’s welfare resources, a keyhole solution would be to allow migration but legally bar immigrants from collecting welfare benefits.”


From Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids:

If the birth of a human being has a lot of positives and a few negatives, the constructive response isn’t to denounce “people.” The constructive response is to selectively target the negatives. Name specific problems, and figure out the cheapest way to handle them.

Selective targeting requires more imagination than mass sterilization, but it’s worth the extra mental effort. If you want to do something about man-made global warming, you don’t have to reduce the number of human beings on the planet. You just have to get humanity to reduce its carbon emissions. A carbon tax is one simple way to get from here to there. To discourage emissions, make emissions more expensive, then sit back and watch lifestyles and technology adapt. The same principle applies to virtually any population problem you can imagine. Don’t like congestion at rush hour? An electronically collected toll is a straightforward way to get traffic moving again.

Improving the environment without cutting population is not wishful thinking. We’ve been doing it for decades. Resources are more abundant. Air and water are cleaner. Problems remain, but the smart path to a better world isn’t restraining our numbers. It’s targeting specific problems by raising the price of bad behavior. To sterilize yourself because your son or daughter will eventually drive a car is truly a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

If we let the “action” be “having kids”:

Pro-action Anti-action
Act on benefits Thinking of more benefits of having kids, or something that can amplify the benefits of having kids, e.g.
Act on drawbacks Something that removes some of the drawbacks of having kids, e.g. Finding more drawbacks of having kids, or amplifying the drawbacks

If we let the “action” be “not having kids”:

Pro-action Anti-action
Act on benefits
Act on drawbacks

Related concepts

There are a number of concepts related to keyhole solutions.

  • Keyhole solutions can be thought of as a form of compromise”.
  • If one sees keyhole solutions as a process of breaking apart a larger problem into smaller ones and solving the smaller ones, it can be thought of as a form of reductionism.
  • Insofar as keyhole solutions prevent drastic actions (by acting in more specific ways), it can be seen as a way to “stifle hyperbole”, similar to betting. See Bryan Caplan’s posts “What’s Libertarian About Betting?” and “Betting, Liberty, and the Status Quo”, which discuss the idea that betting “stifles hyperbole”.
  • If one believes keyhole solutions are “radical”, then it can be seen as another way of “thinking outside the box”. Inasmuch as entertaining unconventional ideas is useful, keyhole solutions can aid one in thinking about causes.
  • Within the framework of a cost–benefit analysis, keyhole solutions can be thought of as a way to act on the drawbacks of an action (to eliminate or mitigate them) or, if one considers the opposite action, to act on FIXME
  • A keyhole-type thinking can be a good way to generate useful questions to ask (it can be used as a sort of template for asking questions).
  • The CFAR technique of “goal factoring” seems similar.
  • The idea to purchase fuzzies and utilons separately also seems similar.

Keyhole solutions fit in the more general way of thinking: examining what is unseen, examining both the costs and benefits,,

Parable of the broken window and looking at “that which is not seen”.

A narrower idea is that of purchasing offsets, which refers to a particular method of dealing with ….

In some sense, a keyhole solution gives one an “excuse” to do something that is opposed by taking away at least some of its drawbacks. From this general framework, one can come up with several other related concepts:

  • Coming up with more benefits for something, to promote doing that thing.
  • Coming up with more drawbacks for something, to curb that thing.
  • Coming up with “excuses” to not do something by achieving its benefits by alternative means

These can be represented in a grid:

Pro-action Anti-action
Act on benefits Finding more benefits Finding more efficient solutions by asking “Can I get the benefits some other way?”
Act on drawbacks Keyhole solutions Finding more drawbacks

(actually this table might be incorrect – e.g. in the case of open borders, one starts with a strong presumption in favor of open borders. So the action would be closing off the borders (akin to an open surgery), and the anti-action would be to stop the borders from closing (akin to a keyhole surgery) by targeting the problems as closely as possible)

Of course, this table can also be reversed by selecting the original “action” to be the opposite action.

If one already wants to do something, it is easy to come up with more and more benefits of that thing. Similarly if one already does not want to do something, it is easy to come up with excuses to avoid that thing. However, it is more difficult to focus on the drawbacks of something one wants to do, or the benefits of something one does not want to do.

  • Learn about keyhole solutions and . Also think about how to get what you want in creative ways; in particular, watch out for situations like the following (by Katja Grace, quoted in Yvain’s “Diseased thinking: dissolving questions about disease”):

    …the situation reminds me of a pattern in similar cases I have noticed before. It goes like this. Some people make personal sacrifices, supposedly toward solving problems that don’t threaten them personally. They sort recycling, buy free range eggs, buy fair trade, campaign for wealth redistribution etc. Their actions are seen as virtuous. They see those who don’t join them as uncaring and immoral. A more efficient solution to the problem is suggested. It does not require personal sacrifice. People who have not previously sacrificed support it. Those who have previously sacrificed object on grounds that it is an excuse for people to get out of making the sacrifice. The supposed instrumental action, as the visible sign of caring, has become virtuous in its own right. Solving the problem effectively is an attack on the moral people.

External links

More links (saving here for now):

  1. Open Borders: The Case. “Keyhole solutions”.