Leave it better than you found it

Many of us seek change.  Some want school vouchers.  Others want smaller classrooms.  Some want quality health coverage for everyone.  Others want cost reduction.  Some want to reduce the size of humanity's carbon footprint.  Others want to make sure that we don't damage our economy in the process.  Some want all of the above.  We see something we don't like, and we want to "fix" it with something better.

It would be wonderful if fixing something produced only benefits, entailing no new costs and adding no new risks.  Unfortunately, that is not the way it works.  The benefit-only fixes have long since been made.  Today, benefits may outweigh costs, but they don't eliminate them.

Moreover, only rarely can the hoped-for benefits and the attendant costs be projected with certainty.  Anyone who espouses change (and anyone who champions the status quo) has left the world of certainty and has entered a far more complex universe of estimates, assumptions and competing probabilities.

Even when projected benefits outweigh projected costs, the two are seldom distributed among us equally.  Our health care system may provide proper treatment to six-sevenths of our population, but it leaves the other seventh to the vicissitudes of home remedies and emergency rooms.  The death penalty may make millions more comfortable in their homes, but not the innocent man who is executed.

With uncertainty and inequality comes struggle.  We struggle with those who focus on what it best for them or ignore the costs borne by the few.  We struggle with others who simply calculate costs, benefits and probabilities differently.  Finally, we struggle with our own lingering doubts.

Uncertainty, doubt and struggle are not avoidable consequences of promoting change.  They are essential components.  They help us retain our skepticism, hone our analysis and broaden our discourse.  With them we and others can fashion compromises that will improve our lives.  Without them our shrill voices will almost certainly get lost in the noise.