Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On Having It Too Good

I'm a member of an organizational board that has been asking why we're doing some of the things we're doing. We have an exceptionally competent operating organization, so some of our monitoring seems superfluous when things are going so well. But it could be that if people expect to have to report on what they are doing, they may do a better job at it.

We really live good lives in America, most of us. And much of that good is in absences: of polio, diphtheria, and whooping cough for just a few things. Some of us are old enough to have personal experience with friends dying from those diseases or of hearing horror stories from older relatives of what those diseases are like. But others have lived only in a world in which those diseases are absent. So the probability of side effects from the vaccines that prevent those diseases looms larger for them. So diphtheria and whooping cough are on the rise in the United States among the unvaccinated.

Or Kevin Drum's blithe acceptance of Matt Yglesias's belief that barbers need not be licensed. It took five comments to bring out the reason for licensing: sanitation. Barbers and hairdressers use sharp instruments that can carry blood-borne diseases. They use combs that can transmit skin diseases. We don't have those problems because licensing requires sanitation in hair-dressing establishments.

Or those banking regulations that seemed so unnecessary in the 1990s...

I suppose there will always be an ebb and flow. Humans so easily learn to take good things for granted and then look at this silly structure that brought the good things and find it superfluous when it is working properly. But if we've learned anything over the past decade or so, it should be that the structures that work best make themselves seem superfluous and that that is not a reason for disassembling them.

Update: The Beloit College Mindset List for this year's college first-year students. An indicator of how things change.

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