By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good

Nirvana logo (yellow). Derived from the cover ...
Nirvana logo (yellow). Derived from the cover of the compilation album Nirvana by Nirvana. Published in 2002. The Nirvana wordmark might be trademarked. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
What a great and old insight--attributed to Voltaire!

I have often been in political discussions where one party dismisses a reform or proposal because it will not solve all problems. The unspoken assumption is that enacting one reform somehow excludes other reforms to be enacted "down the line" or even reforms to be enacted relatively soon. One of the common arguments is that a specific reform or proposal does not address the problems profoundly and so is not worthy of consideration.

As you can see, such objections are rooted in often unconscious and false assumptions:

1. You can enact only one reform at a time;

2. Enacting one reform precludes additional reform;

3. We should never enact piecemeal reforms;

4. The perfect solution is within our reach;

5. We have plenty of time to find the perfect solution;

6. There is no cost to the delay in finding the perfect solution.

In short, the objections assume we live in a utopia where we can find the perfect solution to a problem or need without incurring the costs of delay.

For example, some object to school vouchers, while ignoring the high human cost of inner city kids who grow old every day in a state of ignorance. This insight is also relevant in discussing gun control legislation in the wake of various school-related disasters in the past few years.

We are mortal. We have a limited time to live. We do not know and will never know everything we need to know. We will rarely find the perfect solution, if such a thing even exists in an ever-changing world.

Next time you are at an impasse with yourself or with someone else on what to do about a personal or social problem, consider the old saying: the perfect (or our illusion of the perfect) can be the enemy of the good. (Some refer to the fallacy of perfectionism as the "Nirvana fallacy" or the "perfect solution" fallacy.)

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