Published online 27 September 2011.
“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Once upon a time, in an era of a Democratic President and a Democratic Congress, this slogan was used to reconcile those who wanted more from the PPACA than what they were getting — a public option, perhaps, or a path to single payer, or having the mandate removed, or some teeth installed in the enforcement provisions, especially the medical loss ratio. The end result of all of that not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good was that the PPACA became a bill which mainly subsidizes the insurance companies in perpetuity while granting them a good number of loopholes to get around the enforcement provisions.
This, then, is an examination of the perfect, the good, and the bad in politics.
I recently saw a version of this slogan in Gordon Livingston, M.D.’s (2004) motivational volume, Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart. Livingston argues, even more severely, that “the perfect is the enemy of the good” (pp. 41-44). As a psychiatrist, his concern is with the obsession with control, because he sees control-obsessed people in his daily practice:
In our dreams we could bend the world and the people in it to our will. Gone would be the need to negotiate differences, to endure the uncertainty of failure and rejection. Though we come to understand that such a world is impossible, sometimes we go to great lengths to achieve whatever control we can over those around us through the exercise of power and manipulation (p. 43).
Livingston thus invokes the idea of realism, that in the real world we must negotiate with the real world and endure failure and rejection at times. This is a sobering thought — it is of course important to be realistic about what the world presents. Unlike the political “realists,” however, Livingston recognizes that an insistence on the perfect is important for the careers of professionals. “Who, after all, wants to be operated on by a relaxed surgeon, or fly on an airplane maintained by mechanics satisfied when their work is ‘good enough’?” (pages 43 and 44)
Livingston’s concern with perfectionism (and thus also its intolerance of negotiation and failure) is that it doesn’t suit people psychologically:
The problem with perfectionists and their preoccupation with control is that the qualities that make them effective in their work can render them insufferable in their personal lives. (p. 44)
So “the perfect is the enemy of the good” is meant to be a counsel for one’s personal life. Be realistic in what you can expect from the world. Livingston suggests a compromise with perfectionism in this regard:
The best one can hope for is to introduce them (perfectionists) to the paradox of perfection: in some settings, notably in our intimate relationships, we gain control only by relinquishing it. (p. 44)
This last tidbit, however, does not appear to be advice for the politicians in their pursuit of political victories.
Real PolliticsThe politicians do not think about gaining control by relinquishing it — they control the mechanisms of political power by controlling them, and in the process they gain some degree of control over us and our lives as well. The archetype of the professional politician in pursuit of power, today, is Lyndon Baines Johnson — Robert A. Caro’s trilogy of books The Years of Lyndon Johnson is perhaps the master examination of Johnson’s career with an emphasis upon Johnson’s grasping for political power. Caro would offer in great detail how Johnson, having won his Senate office in a manipulated 1948 election, would eventually go on to “cajole and plead and threaten and lie, would use all his power and guile, all the awe in which his colleagues held him, and all the fear,” to ram the 1957 Civil Rights Act through the Senate, which as Caro says “made only a meager advance toward social justice” (from page xxiii of the Introduction to Master of the Senate).
Perhaps a close second in this regard is George W. Bush, although Bush is perhaps more famous today for being neurotic and for having had the assistance of a fellow named Karl Rove. At any rate, what politicians do is not a matter of gaining control by relinquishing it. Rather, politicians muster huge reserves of “control” in order to get something self-serving (for them) as an outcome, and hopefully there’s a bit of good for it in the people who must endure the resultant spectacle. “The perfect” is never in play, so it can’t possibly be the enemy of the good. Rather, one starts by demanding perfect results in order to get something that’s the least bit good as an ultimate outcome. The reality of political life is not reflective of any sort of perfection so much as it reflects the cynicism which its actors apply to its work — Benjamin Ginsburg’s The American Lie offers a road map of this cynicism, and a series of tips on how to deal with it. Ginsburg suggests that perhaps shame is our most effective tool — exposing the bad behavior of politicians is a good way to keep them from doing more bad things with our consent.
The problem, then, with “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” is not that it cheats us of the perfect: perfection was never in play, and we’re losing the good little by little while the virtues of the consumer society we once enjoyed are slowly reduced. Perhaps a proper focus upon the true enemies of the good can be attained if we reflect upon the good we’ve lost. Remember the world before the Bush reaction to 9/11/01, when air travel hadn’t yet become an exercise in paranoia? Remember the world before anti-immigrant paranoia, before the real estate bubble or the Welfare Bill or Cheney’s war on the world or the USA PATRIOT Act or “humanitarian intervention” or the Shock Doctrine or the Great Recession or the No Child Left Behind Act? Remember when college was something more than the anticipation of massive loan debts upon graduation? Remember when global warming and peak oil and mass death in the oceans were something only a few scientists worried about?
The problem with the slogan “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” is that it is a consideration to be made in personal relationships, and in one’s expectations of life. It’s not wisdom for political struggle.
** Socialism **The political representation of “the perfect” is often taken as socialism. Socialism is often imagined to be some unattainable ideal — gee, it might work except that nobody would feel motivated to work hard without capitalism, or some other such excuse.
Mythologies about “socialism” typically use a sort of straw man arrangement, in which something that isn’t socialism is attacked as “socialism.” None of the mythologies spread about socialism really disturbs its core provision, which is democratic collectivism. Democratic collectivism is the idea that collectives of some sort can form and can “make a living” for their memberships based on arrangements for across-the-board sharing of power. Democratic collectivism has been employed by various organizations throughout time as a real organizing principle, even at gatherings as uncoordinated as Occupy Wall Street.
Democratic collectivism, then, can be as real as the nose on your face. Socialism is a bit less attainable — socialism is when democratic collectivist organizations “take over” and reshape the state so that it too reflects the priorities of democratic collectivism. So that’s the “perfect.” It’s perfectly attainable. But as with normal politics, we should work for democratic collectivism in everyday life so that a small portion of what we do can become real. And that will be the good.
The thing, of course, is that democratic collectivism requires work — meetings and projects and so on. Moreover, the work it demands is work in creating collectives which are responsible to the individuals which comprise them. I believe that this work will begin in earnest among the great masses of people when they become motivated to do it — until then, we can expect to hear and read slogans such as “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” advising us to be realistic about the world.