Impossible is Nothing

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Libertarians often hear “but that can’t work” or “that’s impossible” .when seeking to promote our ideas for a freer world. I’ve found that I can be guilty of the same closed-mind thinking.

Recently, I was given a puzzle that consists of nine square cards, each with a picture of either the head or the tail of a wolf on each of its four sides. The goal is to arrange these nine cards into a 3×3 square in such a way that all sides join with their counterparts, i.e., heads with tails. Like most combinatorial problems, I find it fascinating. One can ponder various characteristics of the set (of the 36 sides in the nine-card set, 22 are tails and 14 are heads; there is only one card with four tails; and so on), and this provides some direction, but, for me at least, not enough to solve the puzzle.

So, like most individuals in our era, I went on the Internet and looked up information on solving the puzzle (that’s how I got through “Lands of Lore,” my one venture into quest games, in less than a lifetime). The site I found gave no intuitive solutions, no clever way of thinking about the problem that an individual might be able to use.

Instead, it described a computational algorithm for solv-

ing this type of problem, and explained the number of ways that nine cards, each with four sides, could be arranged in a 3×3 square. I forget the exact number, but it is calculated by multiplying four raised to the ninth power by 9! (that is, 9 factorial, or 9x8x7 … x2xl). That is a very big number. The web site noted that fact and then outlined various heuristic computer programs that simply went through all combinations to solve the problem. The discussion mentioned only one “shortcut” that the most efficient algorithms used – a “look-back” method. The program would place the pieces together until it came to a dead-end and then it would go back a placement or so and restart. This was the only element of simplification mentioned – the rest was pure brute- force calculation. On a modem computer, the program took minutes to solve the problem. Since a computer can do millions. of calculations a second, I decided this puzzle was not for me.

Being a rational person, I put the puzzle aside, a bit perplexed that my benign assessment of the marketplace had seemingly been contradicted. How sadistic to sell a puzzle that no human being had any practical chance of solving! It would be like winning PowerBall. I explained the puzzle’s impossibility to several neighbors and my brother, who lives nearby. Johnny is a real estate agent who recently explained his success as stemming from persistence – his unwillingness to give up on a sale until the customer decides to withdraw or the sale is complete.

He took the puzzle and my “look-back” clue to his home. A few days later, he called to let me know that he’d done the “impossible” puzzle. I was shocked – I was the mathematician in the famil}T, the logical whiz; what was going on? And then I realized that, like most people, I am susceptible to fatalism – the view that there’s nothing that can be done. It is convenient to decide that a difficult task is impossible. We hear that all the time when we seek to advance economic liberty. But, in this case, I was quick to accept the views of an expert. I surely wouldn’t do that in areas such as trade or environmental policy or regulation. But in this area, where I was “rationally ignorant,” I fell into the same dead-end thinking. I accepted the status quo “you can’t get there from here” view. Johnny didn’t, and he solved the puzzle.

This was good lesson to learn. From now on, when people tell me that I’ll never be able to reform this or that area of public policy, that “it’s impossible,” I’ll simply work harder!

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