Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The Enemy of the Good

The Atlantic's David Graham has outlined the backlash to the way the Trump Administration has implemented the Paycheck Protection Program. In short, the legislation was written with significantly broader eligibility requirements than many would like, and this has triggered withering criticism that the PPP has enriched the already wealthy while ignoring "the people." In the end, Mr. Graham concludes: "The backlash against a successful government program is why the United States can’t have nice things."

I would disagree with this assessment, although perhaps not on the merits. It's true that there appears to be an expectation that government can, and therefore should, perfectly calibrate the assistance it gives, so that only the "deserving" are aided. (This is something that predates the PPP. And it's valid to be critical of the fact that when it comes to individuals, there seems to be a greater willingness to err on the side of withholding assistance.) And it's true that widespread criticism of government missteps tends to lead to an ethos of "don't just do something, stand there;" if only the perfect is at all acceptable, then nothing will happen until the people in charge of crafting it are convinced that it is absolutely above reproach. But in that, the backlash is a symptom, not the disease. The United States can't have nice things because it doesn't want nice things; it only wants perfect things. And it believes that it can get them. If only the perfect is an acceptable alternative to the status quo, then the status quo will tend to reign, because the perfect is difficult to attain in a world in which people themselves are commonly, if not universally, imperfect. If sweeping legislation must be quickly written and enacted while also complying with a specific, and often complex, understanding of the demands of justice, or be otherwise panned as worse than having done nothing, doing nothing becomes a very attractive option.

To a certain degree, having nice things requires accepting at least some of what one has as "nice." Being able to compare a real item, be it a physical item like a car or a more abstract item like legislation, to an ideal is a recipe for disappointment, because ideals, by definition, are freed from the requirement that they operate in the real world and be implemented by real people. They can simply be called in existence, and assumed to be workable. And if unexamined, idealized, conceptualizations of items become the definition of "nice," then nice things will become vanishingly rare, by any standard. Because the nice things that pass reality's muster won't measure up, and the ideals are unlikely to ever be anything other than ideals.

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