Via Negativa and the Copenhagen Consensus Center

“The Copenhagen Consensus Center is a think tank that researches the smartest solutions for the world’s biggest problems, advising policy-makers and philanthropists how to spend their money most effectively.”

This institution has attempted to rank-order interventions that philanthropic humanists should engage in to maximize their return, articulated in $USD return-on-investment per $USD spent. I will not attempt to characterize their methods, as any attempted summary would be perceived as ignorance.

Here are a couple examples so you clearly understand what I am referring to:
One-page of rank-ordered developmental goals
Top 19 targets for work development
They even did a national focused one for Haiti!

I have no doubt that many of these interventions could have non-linear positive consequences. However, they are still interventions, which brings us to Via Negativa.

VIA NEGATIVA is a powerful concept which was, at the least, re-popularized by Nassim Taleb in his book Antifragile (more on that another time; I would recommend that anyone reading this post read Taleb, even if you hate it (I mean, it’s overrated)) .

Via Negativa translates to ‘negative way’. It is a method of improving a system or gaining a greater understanding by subtracting, rather than by adding, or intervening. The basic idea being: intervention can bring severe, negative unintended consequences. Whereas, Via Negativa we are removing complexity from the system and are less likely to inadvertently cause [net] harm. 

Fictional personal example – (note: I am not a licensed professional of anything and taking any ‘advice’ from me is your liability, not mine): I went to the doctor and the test said my blood pressure was high. She prescribed to me a medication to bring it to a healthy level. I went back to the doctor 6 months later because I was having some issues. My blood pressure was fine but now I had another problem and it now also required a medication…


I went to the doctor and the test said my blood pressure was high. She recommended that I take a medication to reduce it. I said “No thank you, doctor”. I thought there could be many non-threatening reasons why my blood pressure was high on that particular day. Work had been stressful lately. However, I decided that it was just another reason to quit smoking cigarettes. [Thank you, Easy Way]. I went back to the doctor one year later for a check-up and my blood pressure was great and my Doctor told me that my lungs sounded healthy…

With this concept in mind, I would be interested in seeing a distinct set of prescriptions, of the sort of The Copenhagen Consensus Center -perhaps only at the national level, that strictly advocated for the [hypothetically] optimal, Via Negativa solutions.

We couldn’t even really compare the effect of these solutions to [m]any advocated by The Copenhagen Consensus Center. They might involve not spending millions of dollars to not do millions of dollars of harm. A $USD return-on-investment per $USD not spent, or -$USD spent!

If I am doing so much which is harmful, and could be best resolved by reducing actions, how much less harm could our institutions do Via Negativa?

This post should not be construed to mean that The Copenhagen Consensus Center is wrong and bad. This post should not be construed to mean that institutions only do harm. I also believe that, like many institutions, I may do harm but I am a net good – all I am suggesting is that we strive to avoid doing harm when we mean to do good. 

P.S.: I have never been addicted to cigarettes or alcohol but I did read The Easy Way To Stop Drinking by Allen Carr from cover to cover.

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