In my last post, I said that liberals are believers in the “good enough,” in accepting the better in place of holding out for the best.
But I can only endorse that position with some serious qualifications. The first is that “good enough” is always contestable. That was the point of saying politics is endless. Political debate, deliberation, and conflict is often about what good the polity should be aiming to achieve. But, in other cases, the debate is about whether the extent to which we have reached a particular good is “good enough.” Could we do better? 80% of the population has health insurance. Should we be content with that level of achievement?
There will always be people who say we are not doing well enough. And such people are to be cherished. The “good enough” position asserts that any arrangement is imperfect. Under that condition there is much to be gained, and little to be lost, by encouraging those who point out how short of perfection we fall. Every halting point, every compromise, is unsatisfactory to some degree—and we hardly want to lose sight of the imperfections that mar every temporary arrangement/agreement.
We stand on muddy, messy ground here—and that is partly the point. Politics is messy because we never know for sure if different tactics will bring us closer to our goal—or if we have maximized what we can achieve. I am loath (allergic to) declaring imperfection inevitable. I hate appeals to “necessity” that seem designed to shut down utopian aspirations or radical critiques. Keeping the realm of possibility as open as possible seems, to me, essential to an imaginative progressive politics. To be called utopian should be an honorific, not a slur.
But—here’s the muddiness—some way of organizing things has to prevail in the imperfect meantime; we cannot leave everything entirely open, fully in flux, waiting upon the perfect. So political fights will also be about whether this current set of arrangements is “good enough” to accept for now, even as we acknowledge its falling short of the ideal. When, in other words, is “good enough” good enough? A very, very, very, difficult question to answer—and one that logic, reason, theory, philosophy cannot do much to help answer. We are here in the thick of the underdetermined world where “truth” has little or no role to play, the world that Arendt identified as quintessentially political.
Temperamentally, I find myself fairly often impatient with the perfectionists who refuse to sign on to an existing arrangement. I say, very likely unfairly, that they prefer their purity, prefer keeping their hands clean, to pitching in to do work required in the here and now. Keeping aloof becomes, all too easily, a permanent stance, a kind of ironic negation of anything that actually exists. It can, no doubt, be difficult to find anything to affirm in this sublunary world—that is, anything to affirm besides the ideals that would allow us to escape our sublunary condition.
But I guess—I never really thought of it this way before—I feel some kind of duty of affirmation. If one is, as I am, an absolute atheist, then there is nothing other than this world. And, yes, we humans have managed to fuck it up mightily. Still, that we have the power to fuck it up means we also should take at least some responsibility for it, for the ways it is arranged and unfolds. Ironic aloofness is one way of denying responsibility. It’s not my fault. I did no harm. But it is also a strategy for not making anything at all happen; I sit aside waiting for the arrival of a perfection that never comes, of a world that will live up to my standards. Good luck with that.
I prefer the route of saying “find something to affirm—and build out from there.” The great good things in my world are my family, my friends, my students, and my colleagues. With all of them I am able to have interactions that are life-affirming, that yield pleasure and insight, and provide opportunities for giving and receiving. From there, it makes sense to affirm (even reserving a right to criticize all their imperfections) the institutions and social arrangement that make those interactions possible. There are worldly settings for our relationships and it seems foolish to ignore or condemn those settings wholesale.
The liberal is often derided as a compromiser, as someone who muddles through, trying to have a little bit of this and a little bit of that, lacking a firm sense of contradiction. And the liberal is also seen as a Pollyanna, resolutely closely his eyes to injustices that undergird the social arrangements and institutions he proclaims “good enough.” But the liberal is not a conservative, not someone who is deeply committed to defending the status quo as the best we can do. And the liberal is not a reactionary, insisting that the golden age was somewhere in the past, and we must tear down the present to return to that prior era. The liberal is (in William James’s terms) a meliorist, forward-looking, in favor of improvement, always willing to measure our imperfect present against the ideals we espouse—and that we fall short of achieving. But the liberal refuses to condemn the present tout court and refuses to believe that absolute and violent repudiation of that present is likely to create even a better world than the present, no less a perfect one.
Again, to conclude, no theory or philosophy can guide us here. When is the status quo so unjust, so bad, that drastic action is justified to change it? When are more moderate strategies for improvement the better course? These are matters of judgment, and there is no determinative calculus to tell us which judgments are correct. Politics takes place on the field of judgment—and all we have to guide us are past instances, analogies and examples, and projective (imaginative) suppositions, none of which comes with any guarantees. Judgment, like social arrangements, are good and better, but rarely vault into the land of the “best.” We can only try to make our judgments “good enough.” Which means those judgments lead to tolerable decisions and actions, to doing things that introduce at least some improvement over the currently existing state of affairs. And then we count on “the cries of the wounded” (another phrase from William James) to let us know how the new arrangement still falls short.