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No Such Thing as Perfect in Politics

Sitting at lunch, my kind hostess looked out at the table and said, “Something is wrong with our society when people get paid millions of dollars because they are good at hitting a ball with a stick  while nurses and teachers make so much less.”

The table, being good guests, quietly nodded. I, being a good guest, kept my mouth shut.

Then her husband joined the fray, bemoaning the state of our country. “The government is too deeply involved in the economy. We need to let the free market work. The deficit is too big.”

I, no longer a good guest, had to open my mouth. “You can’t have it both ways,” I said. “You can’t have nurses make more money and keep the government out of the market. Or, you can’t complain about a ballplayer making $10 million. People make money off of that ballplayer. The owners, MLB, the ballpark, TV … That just tells you how much money that guy brings in.”

“But it’s wrong that our society rewards ballplayers more than they reward nurses and teachers,” she said.

“Really?” I replied. “That’s the free market at work. For a nurse to make $10 million a year, an appendectomy would have to be $50 million. Then the government would have to subsidize medicine even further than it is now and the deficit would be even bigger.”

“We have to cut government spending somewhere,” said her husband. “The deficit is simply too big.”

“Where should we cut it?” I asked. “Should we reduce Medicare payments to doctors by 27 percent or whatever the latest proposal for deficit reduction has it?”
“The legislatures need to decide that,” he replied. “But they have to do it without the influence of special interests.”

“Then how should they do it?” I asked rhetorically. “The incredible thing about this country is that anyone can make their voices heard. We have a free and open society and an ever-growing list of soapboxes on the Internet. Anyone can pull a group together to take action and express their interests.”

“But that leaves everything up to political action committees, organizers or special interest groups,” another guest added.

“It leaves it up to people who mobilize and organize causes or groups. How else should politicians vote or decide?” I asked.

“Based on principle,” said our host. “Based on what is right and what is wrong.”

And I, becoming a good guest again, shut my mouth. We had arrived at the crux of the problem.

I probably agree with my hostess and host on a gazillion different things, but in laws and governance, it is never simple for people to agree on what is right and what is wrong.

The questions that come up in Congress are not long-standing moral questions that have religiously codified answers. These are questions around society-made constructs. Companies and departments of government are involved. Massive parts of society are impacted. The law of unintended consequences is pervasive. The questions are rarely, if ever, moral questions. They are technical questions with huge consequences for interested parties.

That’s OK.

It’s been said a thousand times and seems to bear repeating. Our system is not perfect, but it is the greatest system ever made. It is a human system, created by and for human beings — with their flaws and virtues. Attaining universal goodness, universal perfection, is not in the realm of government.

That, I believe, is what the hostess and host were striving for. Me, too. But let’s not confuse economics and politics with the human attainment of perfection.



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