Perfection or Nothing?

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 our 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 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, 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 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 the 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.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Human Relations, Life, Political Science, Psychology, Society and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Perfection or Nothing?

  1. J P says:

    I have to admit that some of us to the right have also been surprised at how far short of perfection things landed after the”Reagan Revolution”. I guess the difference is that we didn’t expect actual perfection, just improvement. Which, I think, is where the Roosevelt-Truman-Kennedy left probably were too.

    Could it be the low incidence of religious belief among the far left that deludes them into giving mankind more credit than is warranted?


    • N.S. Palmer says:

      The Reagan Revolution was probably a bit over-sold. He had some failures and some important successes. But he was proud of America and optimistic about its future, which inspired a lot of people. As far as I can tell, his predecessor President Carter is a decent and intelligent man but was not a good president.

      As for the far left, they don’t lack religion — they’re religious fanatics. It’s just not a religion that makes sense if you want to maximize human happiness and succeed as a country. Nobody ever won a fight by believing he was an awful person who deserved to lose, nor by believing that he was a gender-fluid dragonkin who could be injured by words.


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