Thursday, April 26, 2012

On Misinterpreting Voltaire

In his poem La Bégueule, Voltaire quotes a saying, “le mieux est l’ennemi du bien,” which in English is, “The best is the enemy of the good.” The moral of the satirical poem may be stated thus: “appreciate the things you have.” The central character in the poem is a lovely but marble-hearted woman who was unimpressed by her life of leisure, and ultimately found it necessary to take an extramarital partner to alleviate her boredom. 

To say “appreciate the things you have” is not the same as saying, “don’t expect much.” The former is advice against greed, envy, and ingratitude. The latter is an expression of defeat when spoken by the downtrodden, and it is an expression of arrogance when spoken by aristocrats and despots.   

Misinterpreting Voltaire's quote to mean "don't expect much" has become a commonplace. It is evidently very consoling to be able to quote (however incorrectly) someone as famously wise as Voltaire when celebrating one’s own pusillanimity. The quote has become a means of consoling oneself for failure, and hence closely akin to the expression, “half a loaf is better than none.” 

I recently commented on an opinion piece presented by an online news source that will remain nameless, and after a brief exchange with other commenters, I was accused of being a purity troll. I was unfamiliar with the expression but soon discovered that it is not a compliment. I also learned that people who disapprove of purity trolls often quote Voltaire, incorrectly. 

The phrase “the perfect is the enemy of the good" also appears in Ray Bennett's valuable book, The Underachiever's Manifesto. Following the phrase to its logical conclusion, he notes, “If something is worth doing at all sometimes it's worth doing it half-assed.”

My reason for discussing the abuses of the adage “the best is the enemy of the good” will become clear shortly. In short, it has become a favorite of politicians, and has also become a means by which voters persuade themselves to lower their own expectations. 

Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA)

In defending PPACA, President Bill Clinton said the following: “Our only responsible choice is the path of action. Does this bill read exactly how I would write it? No. Does it contain everything everyone wants? Of course not. But America can't afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the good (source).” Also in reference to PPACA, Senator Evan Bayh said, as he left a caucus meeting, “The general consensus was, we shouldn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good (source).” 

Sober analysts have concluded that PPACA is a mere stopgap. Yet, the liberal use of variants of the adage, “the best is the enemy of the good” allows a clever politician to transform an expedient compromise into a heroic feat. The narrative goes something like this: Democratic lawmakers were eager to provide Americans with the best of all possible health care systems, but were forced to do battle with recalcitrant Republicans.

A stopgap solution to a problem, in many cases, becomes necessary after considerable resources have
been spent creating the problem in the first place.

The adage also conveys the seemingly very pragmatic and sensible belief that it is impossible to provide everything that everyone wants. Fortuitously, for every Democrat who is prepared to sing the praises of PPACA, there is a Republican who expects PPACA to usher in some sort of medical apocalypse. Clearly then, there is no pleasing everybody. Of course, this assessment overlooks the fact that in every other industrialized Western nation on earth, people were able to come to a consensus and agree to implement some form of universal health care. One may wonder who benefits the most from a hyper-partisan political environment.

A good Whig understands that genuine insights are revealed if one simply observes the flow of money between private interests and political leaders. Using this methodology, one conclusion that may be drawn is that PPACA aims to generously reward hundreds of well-paid executives of the private insurance and pharmaceutical industries who contribute large sums to political campaigns, while providing comparatively niggardly benefits for millions of Americans who were previously uninsured and cannot afford to contribute to political campaigns. This is discussed at greater length in an earlier post and is also discussed in a very illuminating report located here.

                             In general the art of government consists in taking as much money
                             as possible from one class of citizens to give it to the other. 

Troubled Assets Relief Program

The Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) became law in the wake of the nearly unprecedented economic disaster that befell the United States in 2007. Economist Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winner, has asserted that TARP is tantamount to a massive theft perpetrated on the American people (source). TARP ensured that big banks would be able to keep their profits and avoid further losses. TARP achieved this by making the American taxpayer accountable for any losses that the banks might incur as they returned to their free-wheeling highly speculative financial schemes. As a result, in the years following the economic disaster, the “bailed-out” financial firms have enjoyed record profits and the American people continue to struggle with massive unemployment and economic uncertainty.  

                          The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor.

At the time, the American people were told that TARP may have flaws, but it was necessary. Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid said, “We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and … we must move this legislation forward (source).” President Obama himself stated, “I urge all of us not to make perfect the enemy of the absolutely necessary (source).”

Presidential Elections

Many Republicans were disappointed that John McCain became their party’s candidate for president in the 2008 election. McCain was criticized as being too moderate. One conservative blogger (here) incorrectly quotes Voltaire and then asserts that, “When faced with a choice between a moderate who holds some conservative positions and some non-conservative positions and a liberal who holds no conservative positions, the logical decision is to take the moderate. After all, half a loaf is better than none.” 

The Judgment of Solomon: Is the expression "half a loaf better than none" broadly applicable? source
One of the great political mysteries of the modern day is the origin of the widely-held belief, around the year 2004, that John Kerry was the most electable of the candidates for the Democratic nomination. Whatever the cause of this mass hysteria, it illustrates the point that Americans have become accustomed to voting for candidates that they do not like. 

A similar situation now faces Republicans, who are conspicuously lacking in enthusiasm for the presumptive candidate Mitt Romney. The outcome of the 2012 presidential race is by no means certain, however, because despite Romney’s failure to excite the Republican base, President Obama is also losing the support of members of his base (source). 

Democrans and Republicrats

Antoine Augustin Cournot observed a situation in which two companies selling bottled water were placed in competition with each other. As both companies sold water, there was little product differentiation to set them apart. Each company had market power: that is, each company had a large enough of a share of the market that any decision it made could have far-reaching effects on price. In a situation such as this, one company could choose to forgo revenue and compete by lowering prices or otherwise increasing value for the consumer. Yet, a more advantageous strategy involves the companies forming a cartel; if both companies increase their prices, their profits will increase. Because there is little product differentiation, there is little risk of one company losing customers to the other. 

Cournot competition is analogous to a two party political system. Suppose that the two parties each profit from large campaign contributions by large donors. The interests of large donors are at odds with the interests of the consumer – that is, the voting public – but the voting public has no option but to choose between one of the two parties. In a situation such as this, there is an incentive for both parties to agree not to compete for a larger share of votes, but instead, maximize the amount of profit they can achieve by adopting policies which serve the interest of their large donors. In a scenario such as this, one would expect that elections would frequently be very close: the losing side receives 49% of the votes and the winning side receives 51%. The voters don’t get what they want, so they remain loyal to their favored party and -- rather than question their loyalty to their chosen party -- place the blame on the other party. 

Voltaire, long before Cournot was born, made a similar observation. He said, “If you have two religions in your land, the two will cut each other’s throats; but if you have thirty religions, they will dwell in peace.”


  1. Usually when I hear someone argue that "the best is the enemy of the good" I think "No, you're the enemy of the good."

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  2. What, exactly, is your interpretation of Voltaire's original quote? When I first heard it I took it as something along the lines of "stop striving for perfection and appreciate all you have that is already exceptional" I'm interested in getting the french translation as a tattoo but want to make sure I'm not misquoting it. I'd really appreciate any insight you can give! Thanks!

    1. Hi;
      I think you are interpreting the quote correctly. I wrote this post because I believe that other people have misinterpreted the quote to mean "lower your expectations."