2013-10-01

"It's Not Perfect, But It's The Best We've Got"

I have heard that and similar statements from a number of different people in a number of different contexts over the past week. Those who say this are always talking about the American government. Today, I would like to articulate what is wrong about saying that.

First, It's An Argument For Stagnation
Couldn't I just as easily say, "NyQuil isn't a perfect treatment for the common cold, but it's the best we've got"? Under that argument, we may as well forget about trying to cure the common cold. After all, no other chemical company has managed to produce any treatment better than NyQuil, so we ought to just suck it up and gulp down cups of NyQuil whenever we have a cold. It might not be a great solution, but it's the best we've got!

See, "the best we've got" will never be a substitute for the best we might have if we improve on something. Maybe there are potential formulas for future NyQuil-like products that could make us feel even better, while experiencing fewer side-effects. And maybe it's even possible, with enough research, to cure the common cold. You never know. For some, it might not pay to attempt either a new formulation of NyQuil or a cure for the common cold. But that is not exactly an argument against anyone's giving it a shot. I mean, why not try to improve on something, even if it's the best we've got?

Second, The Best We've Got Still Might Not Be Worth Much
You might not like the sound of this, but it is entirely possible that "the best we've got" is causing more damage than having nothing at all.

By way of analogy, consider the practice of blood-letting, which cost millions of people their lives in the 19th century and before. Under the limitations of the prevailing knowledge of the time, blood-letting certainly was the best they had, it's true. But, on the other hand, how many people might have survived, or at least enjoyed marginally longer and more peaceful lives, had they never been subjected to a slow and deliberate process of bleeding to death?

Our problem-solving human brains seem to have a built-in cognitive bias in favor of any solution, so long as it is a solution. We seem to appreciate any scheme at all, no matter how hare-brained it might be. We heard this with ObamaCare, and we hear it in the context of virtually any policy debate. Pundits ask indignantly, "Would you stand by and do nothing while this is going on?" The answer to this is supposed to be, "No," but the real answer - the one that actually produces the best outcome - is, "I would stand by and do nothing if all available alternatives make things worse."

An analogy for this particular point is that guy or gal you know who would rather take a 15-minute detour in order to avoid a 10-minute traffic jam. He or she feels that the 15-minute detour is worth it, because the car keeps moving, even though we'd all save time, gas, and headaches by just waiting it out in a traffic jam.

Basically, people who do this lack patience, and patience is precisely what we need when it comes to solving the government's problems. Sometimes what's going on is making matters worse, which means doing nothing is a much better thing to do.

Third, It's Not Necessarily Even True
Invariably, I find that the majority of people who think that the imperfect American approach to Problem X is the best available have never even heard of other approaches.

Now, it's one thing to say that democracy is better than dictatorship. Yeah, I agree - democracy is way better than tyranny. But how many Americans who are convinced of the superiority of the American system truly feel that a Congressional system always produces better outcomes than a Parliamentary system? I mean, I definitely prefer the Congressional system, but I have my reasons, and I developed them over the course of having lived nearly a decade of my life in a country with a Parliamentary government.

In other words, it's okay to believe that X is better than Y, provided you have actually analyzed both X and Y. But it would be wrong to take the superiority of X as a foregone conclusion.

After all, the United States no longer has the lowest tax rates in the world. Nor does it have the smallest, most capitalistic government. Many of the things Americans are accustomed to taking for granted just aren't true anymore. It's possible that many other countries out there have stumbled upon superior ways to solve problems - not every problem, but maybe one or two.

In fact, it is highly probable that entire world as a whole has a better set of solutions than any one subdivision of the global population. Right? Isn't that why you can get better food in New York City than you can in Bend, Oregon? It's not that the New York system is inherently better, it's that the larger population produces a wider number of available alternatives from which to pick the best.

And, at the same time, there are probably unique situations faced by residents of Bend that have as-yet not been experienced by residents of New York City. Should NYC suddenly experience such a situation, couldn't they learn something from the citizens of Bend? Of course they could!

Conclusion
So try to keep all this in mind the next time you're inclined to suggest that America isn't perfect, but it's the best we've got. First of all, if that's true, it doesn't mean we can't solve our problems in better ways. And second of all, it might not even be true.

Put this idea in the same folder where you store this one: Truth isn't a popularity contest.