Fruit from the Poisoned Tree

“Ye shall know them by their fruits,” the Good Shepherd entoned. “The proof of the pudding is in the tasting”, the general public agreed. “What have you done for me lately?” the voters demanded.

“Science,” Carl Sagan replied, “delivers the goods.”

Just about whichever way you slice it, science is among the most successful of human endeavors. Why is that? The reasons, at the same time elegant and intricate, can and do fill volumes – as well as the occasional blog post. But to simplify without distorting too much, it comes down to this: when science works, it works because it is a self-correcting enterprise. New discoveries and inventions, along with the seemingly never ending supply of new toys and new ideas, tend to grab the headlines and stir the soul. But what really keeps science moving forward is its willingness to recognize errors and throw away bad ideas.

Tomorrow’s innovation grows in soil tilled with the refuse of last year’s crop.

Garden of Eden

When it works, the free market  does so for similar reasons. Capitalists like to wax poetically about the ability of the market to solve problems – humbug! The market fills ‘demand’, not needs, and if you can’t tell the difference, take a stroll down to your local homeless shelter. Such places teem with unmet need, but what they lack are the resources to turn such need into market demand.

What the market does excel at, though, is killing bad ideas – and that is at the heart of incremental self-improvement.

Much the same can be said about people. Last season, for example, I indulged, perhaps too eagerly, in my wife’s signature pies. This season, I am trying to self-correct. (Wish me luck.)

In contrast to this march of progress, our politics struggle so mightily precisely because they lack the most basic element of self-correction: the simple, honest ability to openly admit when you’ve made a mistake. In politics, voters say there is nothing they want more than honesty; in truth, there is nothing they will punish more harshly.

If science succeeds because it kills its bad ideas, politics flails about because it can’t let its bad ideas die. Partisanship, of course, makes everything worse. Party politics means that every politician must not only defend his or her bad ideas, but also the bad ideas of all of their caucus colleagues, as well as the bad ideas of their party stretching back at least a decade.

(This is why, after the last election, I was so excited – perhaps naively – about the prospect of a powerful independent caucus in the Senate.)

The ironic consequence is that politicians, keenly aware of the burden of bad ideas, are desperately unwilling to propose new ideas for fear that they might become tomorrow’s baggage. Speaking during the Great Depression in support of his manic pace of action, F.D.R. observed:

It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.

That passes for a decent description of the experimental ethos: that you should be broad minded in what you are willing to attempt, because you can always admit a mistake, cut your losses, and be better off for having learned something.

Unfortunately, today’s politicians have inverted that formula, avoiding creativity at all costs because nothing is costlier than having to admit a mistake. The fruit of such labors is obvious: they learn nothing and they take us nowhere. And from their fruits we know them.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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