Monday, September 7, 2015


We understand two things that government and institutions do not always grasp: As people we can act to do the right thing, first. As people we can make a difference because we are no longer alone and isolated.
David Amerland. "Sunday Read: Change"
This statement, uplifting as it may be, makes a supposition - and it leaves that supposition unstated - namely that "the right thing" is indisputable, universal, and/or eternal, and perhaps more importantly, self-evident. It also supposes that the differences we can make are always unambiguously positive ones. But bad ideas do not flourish in the world because there are wicked people who love to spread misery and woe - bad ideas flourish because people's imperfect moral sentiments often lead them to believe that they have found the right thing, when they haven't considered the costs - or who will be tasked with paying them. As the saying goes, there is nothing so expensive that someone else can't pay for it.

Low-hanging fruit like the migrant/refugee crisis in Europe make it easy to be armchair humanitarians because we can look at the photo of a drowned child and denounce the immediate circumstances that lead to the tragedy without fear of being contradicted and we can declare that "Someone needs to do something," without being told: "You're someone - do something." But it's the very fact that we aren't the ones tasked with doing something that allows us to listen to nothing but our own understanding of the situation and demand that someone else do the work of easing our consciences.

Most of us do not differentiate between what is right, and what is right for us - what makes us feel good. This often leads to a myriad of different understanding of just what the right thing is, and this is not due to a lack of sufficient intelligence and sensitivity. It's a simple consequence of tens or hundreds of thousands of people each listening to their own understanding of right. Governments are tasked with working out these differences - often, and unreasonably - such that they gain the enthusiastic agreement of all parties involved. Representative governments must represent ALL of their citizens and their varied interests - not just the ones on a particular side of an issue. So while it's easy to be critical of government bureaucrats who appear to founder, dither and look to opinion polls when in the teeth of a crisis, few people are supportive of a decisive response that either turns out badly or costs them more than they wanted to pay. And in a society that votes for its legislators and executives, those people are accountable - and when we choose to hold them accountable, we do so on our own terms. In politics, there is no such thing as managing expectations - you either meet them or you don't. Whether or not those expectations were realistic is your problem.

It is said that in economics there are no solutions - only trade offs. When it's not our responsibility to make those trade-offs, it's easy to forget that.

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