Political perfectionism

Oakeshott sometimes referred to the rationalist style of politics as "politics as the crow flies." I had occasion to think of the phrase today, while listening to an educational administrator on NPR.

She -- I think she was the head honcho of the Newark public school system, but I never heard her title or her name, and it doesn't really matter to this post anyway -- was defending the Newark charter schools. Apparently they are producing some great results.

But a caller, whose daughter is actually in a charter school, was very worried about the fact that not every child in Newark is getting this great education her daughter is. The administrator immediately conceded that the caller's point was a matter of grave concern, and talked about a plan being worked on to ensure that every child does receive this excellent education.

We all know that this will not happen. There are social pathologies in poor neighborhoods that leave too many young residents simply incapable of performing well in school. Now, to the extent we can fix the pathologies, we should do so. But that can't be done in the schools.

Meanwhile, what the schools can do is to allow escape routes for bright and/or hard-working students who would otherwise be trapped in an environment very detrimental to learning. And from what I heard today, Newark is doing that to some extent.

The danger of perfectionism in politics is that the good that can be achieved can be destroyed in the name of a perfection that can't be achieved. Until social conditions improve in poor areas, there is a real limit to what schools can do with children from those neighborhoods. If 20% of them can be given excellent education despite the conditions of their neighborhood, that is way, way better than 0%. Realism about what can be done is a moral virtue, and basing policy on fantasy is a moral vice. If you are the commissioner of your local Little League, it is fine to strive to enable every player to reach their potential. But it is absurd to set a goal of every batter hitting 1000, while every pitcher has an ERA of zero.


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