Good, better, best, perfect

It seems to me that many arguments of many issues could be solved if we agreed on some terms. If a person says there is a problem, and you propose a solution, and you don’t agree on the solution because it is not ideal, sometimes you can agree by categorizing solutions as good, better, best and perfect.  Sometimes we can all agree that “good” is good enough.

Let me give an example. Problem: people should do their home teaching. Well, if Joe is not doing his home teaching at all, and he makes a change and visits two people (out of four) every month, that is good. Is it perfect? No. But it is good. So, we should all agree on that. We can break it out this way:

Problem: Joe is not doing any home teaching.
Good: Joe starts home teaching two people every month.
Better: Joe does all his home teaching every month.
Best: Joe does his home teaching because he loves all of the families he home teaches and becomes an integral, helpful part of their lives.
Perfect: Joe loves all of his home teaching families, inspires them to go to the temple, do their genealogy and serves them like the Savior would.

So many arguments, discussions and, frankly, contention could be avoided if we all agreed that “Good” is good enough for some people and that we can agree “perfect” is great but most of us are never going to get there. This does not mean you are against the “perfect” solution — it just means you recognize we all fall short of the ideal. So, two people discussing this topic on a Mormon blog are often in agreement more than they would admit — they are just using different terms and speaking different languages. One is concentrating on the “good” solution, and the other is concentrating on the “perfect” solution. The one who is concentrating on the “perfect” solution probably would settle for “good” in Joe’s case if he knew all the details. So, at the end of the day, the two people who are arguing really do agree for the most part.

Now let’s talk politics.

My good friend Bruce Nielson’s post on libertarianism really got some of my libertarian friends riled up.  Frankly, I think Bruce is confused about this whole “good, better, best, perfect” concept and how it applies to libertarianism.

The vast majority of libertarians — and I speak here of the people who write at “Reason” magazine, the Cato institute, the von Mises institute, George Mason University, the Freeman — in short, nearly all libertarian intellectuals, share the concept of “good, better, best, perfect.”  So, if you ask them, “how should we reform Social Security,” they may come up with the following answers:

1)Good:  means test and slowly raise the retirement age.

2)Better:  means test, quickly raise the retirement age and introduce partial privatization.

3)Best:  Make Social Security completely voluntary, and privatize it.

4)Perfect:  Get rid of federal Social Security altogether, replace it with charity and voluntary state and local retirement solutions.

So, if you asked a libertarian what he favored, he probably would say, “in a perfect world, I would favor 4), but I would settle for 1) in the short run.”  He might even settle for the “better” or “best” solution at some point because he realizes “perfect” will never happen.  But this does not mean he is against any of the solutions that fall short of his “prefect” ideal.

Bruce makes a dichotomy between what he calls “Standard Democracy” and “libertarianism” that I cannot accept.  Libertarians in real life simply do not think the way Bruce claims they do.  Bruce’s description of libertarians is exactly like saying that all Mormons favor the proposition that only “perfect” home teachers are acceptable.  Well, you could find conference talks in which apostles urge us to be Christ-like home teachers and strive for perfection.  But we all realize that if Joe is doing no home teaching and suddenly starts home teaching two people a month, that this is a huge improvement.  It is not just good, it is great!  So, no real-life Mormon is going to say that only the perfect is acceptable.

The same applies to libertarianism.  Libertarians will argue with you all day long on how the perfect society should look.  But they also are relatively sane human beings who would accept a “good” change as the first step toward more positive change.

I will conclude by reiterating my point that people tend to put others in categories.  Mary is so judgemental because she thinks visiting teachers should be “better.”  Your Elders Quorum president is so unrealistic because he asks you to try to love the families of the people you home teach.  In reality, Mary would celebrate Joe the non home teacher doing any home teaching at all, as would your Elders Quorum president.  So, give them a break:  we are all trying to do better, but nobody, including your Heavenly Father, demands that only perfection is acceptable.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

24 thoughts on “Good, better, best, perfect

  1. Many have the impression that libertarianism is an inflexible, homogenous ideology. The truth is, there are as many flavors of libertarianism as there are people.

    I think of it this way: there is agression and violence in the world. That’s a problem. The State is only one solution among many for addressing the problem, and a poor one at that. But good thing it’s just one among many. There are dozens of potential solutions to the problem that don’t involve the state, and they are all radically different from each other. It seems to me that those who insist that the state is the only solution are the ones that are inflexibly blinding themselves to a world of possibility.

  2. This is tangential to your main point, but sometimes I wonder if we preach so much to just go home teaching, regardless of whether or not you feel you are doing any good (because you just don’t know what good you’re doing) doesn’t help the problem and keeps us stuck in the mire.

    When people go and feel useless and like they wasted their time, they have those feelings for a reason. Not saying the reason is 100% accurate, but there’s something there to that feeling. So we spend time telling people to ignore that “useless” feeling and tell them you never know you just might be doing something great. While that could be true, and while it’s also true that many people don’t feel this way, I think often the “stuck in the mire” feeling with HT comes because we just don’t see the good we’re doing because we’re not trying to do much good. We’d like to do good. But instead we get or give a message that doesn’t have a whole lot of sincerity because its perfunctorily done.

    I contrast that with the approach of the Savior who testified about important things, encouraged people to rise above many cares of the world, encouraged them to be better by focusing on true doctrines of charity and repentance. Ultimately, like your give in your example the difference is loving the individual and loving the Lord. And I think the best way to achieve both of those is through prayer and by involving both in your life — the Lord through scripture study, study of the words of the modern prophets, AND then acting on those words you read as you make changes in your life. Loving your HT families through praying for your heart to be changed, so you can actually learn to love them and going out and finding ways to serve them or help them and thinking about how you can serve/help them without simply asking, “is there anything we can do for you this month.” Now, I’m not arguing to be intrusive and show up and start scrubbing their toilets against their wishes. But surely there is a way for you, with the guidance of the spirit, to recognize their needs and act to help them.

  3. I have no interest in the libertarian discussion, but the good, better, best (perfect) one intrigues me. How often do we hear a speaker who says something like, “I don’t read the scriptures as well as I should, but…” Conversely, I’ve never heard anyone say, “I don’t pay my tithing the way I should, but…”

    Are there times in life when good enough is good enough even if we’re not perfect, yet?

  4. Confused though Bruce may be, it is nice to see his attempts to remain in constant agreement with you. Or you with him. That is good. 😉 Not perfect, but good.

  5. Geoff, I think what you are trying to say is that libertarians are willing to be pragmatic, to take baby steps towards their ultimate goals, and that they are willing to compromising when the cards are in their favor.

    However, that is not the message I am hearing from the libertarian or tea party candidates. In the last GOP debate, every single candidate said they would reject a compromise that cut $10 of spending for every $1 of tax increases.

    Now I know that the candidates are forced to say that, because if they said otherwise, it would be political suicide. I know that probably all of them would take that compromise in a real life situation, if they were President.

    But the reason our candidates can’t publicly accept such an incredibly generous compromise, is that such a large portion of the voters have become unbending fanatics on this subject, with no sense of political reality or pragmatism.

    We need people like you, strong ideological libertarians, to keep reminding everyone, that actually, politics does entail compromise. If the American people keep moving to extremes, it makes it nearly impossible for our politicians to get anything accomplished in Washington, because anyone with dirty hands gets voted out. And politics is all about getting your hands dirty.

  6. Nate – as I understand it, the tax hikes were really, and proposed to come within the year, and the spending cuts were and are largely shell games, proposed to come over several years.

    In the best case, it would be something like this…. if the tax hikes were viewed over a decade, they’d be raising $10 in taxes for every $10 cut over that decade. Except we know the $10 wouldn’t be cut and in addition to not even cutting that $10, they would be spending another $15 somewhere else.

    So in reality the situation looked like over the course of a decade, raising $10 more in taxes and $20 more in spending. Once again, not even sustainable, let alone approaching the notion of reducing outstanding debt.

    If the solution was to take next years budget, and add $1 more in taxes for $10 reduced* in spending -next year- I think a lot of people could swallow that bitter pill (for both sides). Are you suggesting this solution was actually presented? If not, then your suggestion and premise is disingenuous. If it was presented and seriously discussed then I agree that one would be unreasonable to refuse to accept it.

    *where reduced is defined as spending less than the previous year, not spending more, but actually having it be less of the increase you hope to receive and therefore counting it as “less”.

  7. Nate, the recent fiasco was in no way a “generous compromise.” It was trimming some of the projected spending, but the amount of spending will still be increasing. The truth is, we are heading towards doom. A generous compromise would be to stand still, but the proposed compromise was to walk a tad bit slower.

  8. I don’t think there is any way to “spin” what was intended to be a hypothetical question during the debate. $10 spending cuts for every $1 tax increases. If that were really the offer, would you take it, as it is stated? Yes or no?

  9. Nate, I hope I don’t disappoint you, but my answer to #10, and I believe the answer of 99 percent of libertarians is: under our current political situation, no way. Under the politics and tax structure of 1880 (just to name a date), yes.

    In 1880, there was no income tax. Most money was raised by tariffs. A cut meant a real cut. So if the budget was $100 million and you were only bringing in $80 million (thus creating a $20 mllion deficit), you could easily see cutting $10 million and raising $1 million in new taxes to help take care of the gap and lower the deficit. A Grover Cleveland-following libertarian/conservative could have done that in 1880, and in fact many very admirable politicians did this in our early history.

    Unfortunately, that is not the situation now. First of all, income tax rates are completely out of control and confiscate a huge percentage of the salaries of most people. And there are state income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, car taxes and a myriad of other fees and charges just for living and doing everyday activities. And of course the budget is $3.7 trillion with income of $2.2 trillion, creating a deficit of $1.5 trillion. Our national debt approaches 100 percent of our GDP. And, most importantly, cuts are not real cuts. As has been mentioned, NONE of the proposals were for real cuts. They were cuts in the rate of growth. So, we just supposedly “cut” $1 trillion in the deficit in the deal signed in early August. Actually, this is over 10 years, and it is a cut in the rate of growth. So the deficit will still grow $8 trillion over the next 10 years, rather than $9 trillion. This game of “cutting” is a complete sham and we should be embarrassed to have to engage in such tricks as a country.

    So, to get back to the 1880 way of thinking, if we were to cut $1 trillion out of the 2012 budget (from $3.7 trillion down to $2.7 trillion), I would be in favor of $100 billion in new taxes for 2012 to get close to balancing the budget. But no such proposal was ever considered by *anybody* and was never on the table. In the absence of such a proposal, proposing a 10 to 1 “cut” that is not really a cut is so ludicrous as to not merit any real consideration by anybody.

  10. It’s actually rather brilliant a tactic, if you think about it. Here’s a simplified version of what happened (numbers are not representative): “We want to increase spending and increase taxes. You want to decrease spending and decrease taxes. So here’s a generous compromise: We were going to increase spending by $100, but we’ll only increase spending by $90 if you let us raises taxes $1. See? Compromise. If you aren’t willing to accept that, you’re inflexible.”

    The problem is that the end result is an increase in both spending and taxes. Compromise? Hardly… that’s a win on both counts by the other team.

  11. Geoff and ldsphilosopher, I can see why you feel you would need to play hardball to try and curb runaway spending in the current crisis. But how hard would you play? To the point of shutting down the government or default? That’s the question that your posting suggests that libertarians need to ask. But I’m glad to see that under a hypothetical situation like the one you mention in 1880, you say you would consider raising taxes. But you can afford to speak rationally, unlike our politicians, who must speak emotionally.

  12. Nate, the problem is, without some severe cutting, we are going to see a major shut down of the government simply because our money becomes worthless.

    History shows that out of control spending and printing of money makes for quick bumps in economy, followed by major recession or depression.

    Example: in 1917, the German Mark equaled 75 cents (US). Because of the Weimar government’s out of control spending and printing, by 1921, it took over one Trillion Marks to equal a dollar. This is why it collapsed and opened the door for Hitler and the Nazi Party, which offered salvation.

    We have this belief that Congress has taught us by kicking the can continually down the road, that we can keep kicking the can down the road. Pres Reagan tried to “compromise” with the Democrats on some cuts and some tax increases. It ended up being a farce, just as what was now offered (see LDS-P’s explanation). It did not resolve the borrowing problem, it just gave government more money to spend elsewhere. The only real tax cuts were placed way in the future, and then later ended, while the tax cuts that occurred only meant spending less borrowed money than they initially stated.

    If we could trust Congress to be serious about the problem, we could accept a 10 for 1 solution. But they’ve shown they cannot be trusted with such things, always playing politics even in the middle of this crisis.

  13. I think Geoff’s point is that on this issue, we’re not being inflexible because of ideological concerns. We’re not holding out for perfect. We just don’t think that the proposed compromise would actually be a better scenario.

  14. Nate, I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept of sleight of hand? It’s what is played at every level of politics on both sides. And it’s one reason why I don’t like politics. If you are buying into this argument of 10-1 then you are falling for sleight of hands.

    I already said I’d take a 10-1 cut. But that’s not on the table. So when it’s discussed in the context of the kinds of “cuts” that have been out there it’s rejected.

    It has been pointed out, if we want to cut the budget in this manner, we should just instruct the CBO to assume a 100% increase in spending each year without publicizing it, and then we could “cut” spending by 30% and sound like heros and still be spending even more than ever. This is what is happening, but the scale is smaller. Last years budget is X, next years budget is projected to be X+2, and we announce a “cut” in the budget if we propose a new budget of X+1.8. In fact, the budget was never cut but increased. The people who talk about cutting the budget are being disingenuous because the budget was always X, and it was never cut. All that was cut was the increase. So if you want to talk about cuts, you need to talk about cutting the actual budget, not cutting the increase.

    So it’s entirely appropriate, when the only cuts that ever seem to take place are in the increase, and not in the budget, for someone refuse to raise taxes in exchange for cutting an increase. “You have to start somewhere” is a poor counter-point because the solution to spending too much one year is not to spend even more the next year and call that a “start”.

    Please confirm you understand this and provide your reaction to it.

  15. I will only say that anyone who actually votes Libertarian does not understand the “good, better, best, perfect” concept.

  16. PaulM, as a libertarian-leaning person, I actually do not disagree with that. Given the nature of our two-party system, voting for the Libertarian party is almost always a wasted vote. Sometimes it really is best to hold your nose and vote for the “queen of the pigs” candidate. However, if the Republicans had nominated Huckabee, I would have voted for a third party. I could never have voted for him or Obama.

  17. Paul,

    There’s two ways to view it: does one vote for the better of the two major parties? Or the best candidate? It all depends upon what a person considers most important.

    Do we vote for George W. Bush, who dragged us into Iraq and left us stranded in Afghanistan for a decade, brought out an unfunded prescription program for seniors, and led in such a precarious way that the housing and banking markets crashed? Or do we vote for Al Gore, who would have pushed so hard into global warming Kyoto-like treaties that we would all be living in caves?

    In such an instance, we aren’t always talking about “good, better, best, perfect”, but “bad, worse, worst, Armageddon”. In fact, the two lists could be strung together, to give us a better understanding and variety of choices of where to place candidates and regulations.

    For example, I would not put Obamacare anywhere on the good to perfect scale, but probably around bad to worse. Of course, bailing out banks and corporations, instead of helping small businesses and the poor and middle class, after the banks and government caused the crash and recession, is probably between bad and worst. And both parties are involved in that bad scheme.

    So, while I probably will vote for a major candidate for president, it depends on who is running. And it is rarely a wasted vote to go with a Libertarian on a local or state ticket.

  18. Rame, in 2010 my choices for Colorado governor were: Hickenlooper, a government who has not been terrible but certainly not somebody I would vote for; a Republican candidate who was so terrible that he got something like 4 percent of the vote and the third party candidate Tom Tancredo, who is OK on fiscal issues but a blithering idiot on immigration. I held my nose and voted for Tancredo because polls showed he had a chance to win. If I had that vote back I would have voted for the Libertarian candidate. So you are right, there are times when it is worthwhile.

  19. Chris asked for my reaction about the slight of hand politicians use to make it seem like they are cutting the budget, when actually, it is increasing. Yes, absolutely, that sounds like something Democrats would be spinning. It’s a shrewd political tactic for those who can’t politically afford to cut too much, and it keeps pressure on Republicans for seeming irresponsible by not accepting any revenue increases in return for the “cuts.” Politics as usual.

    But I think it should also be noted that the continual rise of government spending has more to do with sustaining rising costs of programs, and less to do with increasing “investment,” “pork,” “additional entitlements” etc.

    (Ironically, Republicans, even if they had the power, could not politically afford to make the kind of dramatic cuts they are asking for, which would mean substantial cuts to military, social security and medicare, and would leave them all out of jobs in the next midterms. But since they don’t have the power to make the cuts they are asking for, they can afford to scream vaguely about “cutting spending” without actually having to risk their careers for it. Funny listening to Romney’s rhetoric these days, “I’m going to cut billions in waste, bureaucracy, and pork!”)

    Republicans have given up on anything but obstructionism with Obama, hoping (in their dreams) for a GOP takeover that will finally give them the political capital to do it all themselves without having to raise a single cent of revenue. Not going to happen.

    And Democrats are praying that the economy will turn around, (with the help of some further stimulus) and the budget will magically get balanced with the increased revenue of a healthy economy, without any significant cuts. Not going to happen either.

    At some point, everyone in Washington is going to have to make some big sacrifices and some painful compromises. Of course it won’t happen until after the next presidential election of course. But I’m optimistic. At some point I think that reason and the greater good will prevail. This is America. We’ve been through worse and triumphed.

  20. Nate, while some of what you surmise is true, yet there have been hundreds of billions in new spending occur over the last 10 years to add to the rising costs of programs. From Medicare prescription drug Part D to Obamacare to expanding foreign wars, etc., we are spending lots of money, much of which has never been budgeted for.

    Medicare and Social Security have greatly expanded from when they were created. Social Security now also supports those with disabilities. My wife’s ex lived many years on SSI for his “disabilities” while working under the table farming, logging, etc. My daughter-in-law told me about a 92 year old man in a hospital she works at, where they keep his brain-dead body alive on a ventilator (for 2 years now), because his daughter doesn’t want to give up his monthly check! So, we’re paying out twice for someone who would peacefully slip away, as well as Medicare payments to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year!

    So, we need to look at ‘good-better-best-perfect’. Perhaps we need to tell this woman that Medicare will no longer keep 92 year old brain dead people on ventilators, and if she wants him kept alive, she will have to pay for it. I’m thinking she would gladly give up the monthly check to avoid paying the huge medical costs….

  21. Oh, and I don’t think Republicans are (for the most part) being obstructionists. I think they are seeking real solutions, and not the fake solutions being offered by Pres Obama and the Democrats. We’ve noted the fake “tax cuts” already that the liberals have proposed.

    Our problems lie in a government that is way too big and too involved. Note that with the zero jobs growth announcement that the Obama Administration shut down the EPA’s draconian environmental plans. Why? Because the extra regulation would have destroyed even more jobs. They are desperate in the White House to both grow government, and fix the economy. In fact, during the debates with McCain, candidate Obama insisted we could do everything, even in this big recession, including Obamacare, environment, etc. But now they are finding they cannot do both. Their plan has crapped out, and they do not have a replacement plan that does not sound like a Republican plan. So, while they promised environmentalists harsher regulations via the EPA, they now have to renege on those promises, in order to save the economy. Because they are beginning to see that their Utopia just will not work.

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