Jumping to the top of the stairs
Posted by aogFriday, 02 January 2004 at 09:29 TrackBack Ping URL

It’s always a challenge to respond to complaints that are based on the perfect being the enemy of the good. It’s frequently hard to tell whether it’s a result of being naive or a clever rhetorical trick. The latter is because to argue for the good is easily made to seem like arguing against the perfect (because, in a real sense, one is).

The first example is yet another negative report on the situation in Iraq. The basic thesis was that the Iraqi judicial system wasn’t perfect, or even up to the same standards as that in the USA. Any context, such as that people were no longer being arbitrarily sentenced to arrest, torture or death, was dropped. The system wasn’t perfect, therefore the USA was at moral fault1. Here we see the problem with requiring perfection. It was simply impossible for the Coalition to topple the Ba’ath and replace it with a full fledged working liberal democracy. The NPR view seems to be that because of that, we should have left the Iraqis to suffer and die rather than leaving them with a much better yet still heavily flawed government.

The other example is from a discussion at Harry’s Place about trade agreements. The basic issue was attaching labor and environmental sidebars to trade agreements. I disagree with that policy, because it has the primary purpose of pricing foreign labor out of the market and is therefore a form of protectionism. For a better explanation of this than I could do, see the comment by Oliver Kamm on the post.

But what struck me was the comment by Aaron, who notes the continued misery of those employed by foreign multinationals. Certainly if one compares the standard of living of, say, the maliquadora workers in Mexico to the average citizen of the USA there’s quite a stark difference. But that’s effective the “perfect” comparison and not very meaningful. What one should compare with is what their lives would be like without the maliquadora. One should also note that unless the workers are being held there by force, they have judged themselves better off with such jobs than without. Yet people like Aaron, secure in their high standard life, feel free to impose their judgement on what’s best2.

The root problem with this view is that it denies any possibility of incremental improvement, because any step along the way seems bad when compared with the (hoped for) final step. Yet the alternative to walking that hard path is not taking it at all. That’s not a price I’m willing to impose on others to satisfy my own moral rectitude.


1 I won’t get in to the issue of why the NPR thinks the Iraqis have no responsibility in this area. I’ve been there before on that kind of soft bigotry. I suspect the Iraqis don’t think much of the view that they’re instrinsically the equivalent of children to be taken care of by the “grown up” Americans.

2 This is why I tend to minarchism, so as to avoid as much as possible the presumption that I know better than others what is good for those others.