Perfection or Nothing?

Written by: N.S. Palmer | Posted on: | Category:

The French philosopher Voltaire warned that "the perfect is the enemy of the good."

Pursuit of "perfect" but impossible goals makes us reject possible goals because they're imperfect. And we often make things even worse than they were in the first place.

That spotlights one of Americans' basic disagreements: Can we accept a society that is good but imperfect? Or should we insist on "perfection or nothing," and end up with nothing?

It's not really a dispute between left and right. It's a dispute between realism and magical thinking.

History shows that utopian fantasies have failed every time they've been tried. We can't create a perfect society with imperfect people. The only question is whether or not we're willing to accept the fact.

But some people are so intolerant of any imperfection (in others) that they can't accept the fact. Their attitude reflects a famous quote from the Vietnam War of the 1960s: "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."1

Norman Podhoretz, a former leftist who for 35 years was editor of Commentary magazine, explained:

"The Left of the 1930s had a positive alternative in mind -- what they thought was positive -- namely, the Soviet Union. So America was bad; Soviet Union, good. Turn America into the Soviet Union and everything is fine.

The Left of the 1960s knew that the Soviet Union was flawed because its crimes that had been exposed, so they never had a well-defined alternative ... Their real passion was to destroy America and the assumption was that anything that came out of those ruins would be better than the existing evil."

Some people demand "perfection or nothing." Whether in politics or personal life, it's unwise and destructive.


  1. The quote is disputed and probably apocryphal.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an "impressively nuanced analysis."