Saturday, October 23, 2004

The Good Enough Government
How Developmental Psychology Informs Voters

Tired of the ongoing political debate?  Me too.  That is why I am going to indulge in a little of the good old ultra-theory today.

The current political debate has gone beyond shrill, beyond bombastic, to being, well, useless.  It pretty much boils down to one of three things:

1. He said/did X, but what he really meant to do/say was Y, and Y is bad.
2. He said X, but it's a lie.  There he goes again.
3. He did not say/do X, so he's an idiot.

There might be a few more basic templates, but those three seem to be the main ones.  All boring; nothing new; nothing noteworthy.  What we need to do, in order to reinvigorate the discussion, is to get beyond the specifics, beyond the facts, and into pure abstract theory. 

Let's talk about the perfect government.  Start with two ends of a spectrum: a government could do nothing at all for its citizens, or it could do everything.  The government that does nothing is anarchy; the government that does everything is, for lack of a better word, panarchy.  I don't think any serious candidate takes either extreme position.  Rather, they advocate something in the middle.  Traditionally, the Republican position is toward the anarchy side: small government, minimal regulation.  The traditional Democratic position is more toward the panarchy side: more programs, more regulation.  Of course, the perfect government would not take a fixed position.  It would shift one way or the other, depending upon the situation.  Still, it is instructive to think for a moment about what the ideal position would be.

In developmental psychology, there is a concept that was developed by Donald Winnicott (1  2).  The concept is that of the "good enough" parent (3).  The good-enough parent responds to the needs of the child enough so that its needs are met, but not so much that the child fails to develop its own resources.  Ironically, the good-enough parent is not perceived as perfect, from the standpoint of the child.  For proper development to occur, there must be some frustration, some inadequacy, and some conflict. 

In general, the good-enough parent is more responsive with infants, and gradually less responsive as the child grows older.  This, however, is a dynamic process; it does not proceed mindlessly according to a preset rate.  For example, when a child starts high school, the parents might be a little more solicitous at first, then back off.  Then when the kid starts college, the parents might again be a little more attentive at first, then back off.  There is no way to establish, a priori, any kind of formula that will identify the perfect degree of attentiveness.  Therefore, the good-enough parent pays attention to what he or she is doing, then makes adjustments based upon outcomes. 

Notably, the good-enough parent does not  become so fixated upon a childrearing theory, so as to keep applying that theory, even though it is not working.

Obviously, there is a comparison to be made between the concept of the good-enough parent, and that of the ideal government.  The ideal government strikes a balance between doing nothing and doing everything; adapts to changing needs; pays attention to what works and what does not; and changes its strategy if it is not working out as planned or expected.

How night this work in practice?  Take the example of tinkle down economics.  The idea is that is government panders enough to rich people, the wealth will trickle down through the economy until everyone gets a fair share.  Some might object that this would be expected to work only in the absence of greed, and that it would be stupid to assuming an absence of greed.  Whatever,  it might be worth a try.  So, go ahead and institute some trickle-down policies.  If the gap in wealth between rich and poor grows, then you know the strategy is not working.  So try something else, like raising the minimum wage.  Don't get so fixated on your theory that you fail to notice that IT IS NOT WORKING. 

Another example: welfare reform.  Maybe the government is trying too hard, is getting too attentive, and people are not striving hard enough.  OK, let's back off a bit.  But if you see that more and more people are homeless, are descending into poverty, and are going without health insurance, PAY ATTENTION AND FIX IT.  Don't get so enamored of your theory that you fail to notice that IT IS NOT WORKING. 

Much of the political debate lately has been focused on the question of where the government should be, along the anarchy-panarchy scale.  Personally, I think that is pointless.  What we need to focus on are the strategic questions: how do you construct a system that pays attention to the outcome of any changes, and corrects itself if things are not working out?  How do you assure that strategies that are not working will be revised or discarded?

For the voters: how do you determine which candidates have the capacity to assess the outcome of their policies, and make appropriate changes?