“There has to be a better way.”

You hear that a lot.  Explain scarcity, that wants (often called “need” even when “wants” is the correct term) will always outstrip availability and someone comes back with “there has to be a better way.” Explain that while it’s “reasonable” to believe that peaceful trade is far more beneficial economically and in every other way than war and conquest, not everybody in every nation is “reasonable” and so it is necessary to maintain a strong military to cause those unreasonable folk to at least hesitate and “there has to be a better way.” Explain that this same principle applies on the personal level and that, furthermore, no matter how much the police might want to protect you (if they want to protect you) they can’t–they can’t be everywhere–so you have to be responsible for your own protection and, sure enough, “there has to be a better way.”

No.  There doesn’t.

Oh, you might want there to be a better way.  I might want there to be a better way.  But nowhere is it writ that the Universe must, or even can, conform itself to what we want.

This is not to say that there is never a better way.  After all, that’s what progress is all about:  finding the ways that are better (for sufficient values of “better”).  Mind you, not everyone agrees whether these new ways are actually better.  I find the speed and convenience of email a vast improvement over handwritten letters.  There are some who bemoan letters written in neat script on thick, textured paper becoming largely a lost art.

There is a passage from an old novel set in the late twenties (1920’s), where one character, stopped at the side of the road with car trouble, bemoans the change from horse and buggy to the motor car.  Before, you see, he could have just taken a nap. “The horse knows his way home.”

So, yes, often there is a “better way” for many things.  But, that is no guarantee that there must be for any particular problem.  And while the search for better ways is a worthwhile pursuit, the thinking that there must be one, particularly when it comes to social institutions and the human condition, is fraught with danger.

When one insists that there must be a better way, there’s a dangerous tendency to dismiss current ways as bad, and to ignore what has been learned from long experience.  And so the old is tossed out in favor of the “new” without sufficient consideration about whether this new thing will work at all, let alone whether it will be better.  And sometimes people cling to these “new things” long after any newness remains.

An example of this is centrally controlled, planned economies.  They were “sold” on the idea that they would be more efficient than voluntary exchanges in a free market.  And time and time again, they have been demonstrated to simply not work.  And yet people remain so enamored of the idea of planning to reduce waste, increase “fairness” (as they see it), and eliminate the chaos and uncertainty that comes with freedom, that they keep trying to sell it again.

Another example is the repeated effort that if we just “understood” folk who mean us harm, if we just “extend the hand of peace” to them, if we were just nicer to them they would be nice to us or, at least, leave us alone.

Well, Rudyard Kipling put well where that thinking leads:

When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”
“Gods of the Copybook Headings” 
Rudyard Kipling

So while it remains worthwhile to look for better ways, one needs to take care not to throw out the proverbial baby with the proverbial bath water.

And remember that not all “better ways” are actually better.

18 thoughts on ““There has to be a better way.””

    1. So very true – it’s like I “want” to fly, without any mechanical device lifting me.
      I don’t believe it’s possible, tho I want it.

      From whatever situation we’re in, there might be a better way, but possibly not.

      Unfortunately, because people are different, some will want to change from the best. Assume we DO have an “optimal” situation, based on maximizing positive values for different people, and minimizing negative values for different people. The tradeoffs involved in the optimizing mean that some changes can help some people while being bad for others — but those that are better off might claim it’s better. Because it’s better for them, even tho it overall is worse.

      This is especially true when some people value “freedom” highly, while others value “security” highly, and there are tradeoffs to both.


  1. And I don’t mind someone searching for a better way… and *selling* it to us. But if I don’t want it, don’t force it on me. (‘Cause that one word, “force”, conceals a mighty host of evils.)


    1. If you have to force a ‘better way’ on free people, chances are it really isn’t a better way…


  2. Excellently well put. I would add that even a “better way,” once found, will come with costs — and perhaps with tradeoffs we would prefer not to have to make. Thomas Sowell has been eloquent about this for decades. The Left, of course, will have none of it. They want their pipe dreams and will not listen to anyone who suggests that it’s time to wake up. All of human experience proclaims that their pipes are empty. Nevertheless, they persist.


  3. And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”

    Trump voters are the last people who should quote that–IYKWIMAITYD.


    1. No — actually I don’t know which infantile non sequitur you were attempting.

      If you took a second to escape from the “Orange Man Bad” swamp, you would notice that Trump’s policy ideas are mainstream Dem from the 1970’s


      1. you would notice that Trump’s policy ideas are mainstream Dem from the 1970’s
        I keep making this point: Trump is not a conservative. But the Dems have moved so far left that he looks like Reagan in comparison.


    2. No, I don’t know which infantile non sequitur you were aiming for.

      But, if you got out of the “Orange Man Bad” swamp, you might notice that Trump’s policies are pretty much 1970’s Dem


    3. I daresay that Trump was significantly better known by most people than Jeb!

      His sincerity on many topics was open to question, but that was an improvement over the usual suspects who sincerely promised to sell out the base.
      There was never a serious argument that he was somehow to the Left of McCain and Romney.
      And (this cannot be understated) there was no question that he really, truly loved our country.


  4. You know what always bugs me about those who spout “There must be a better way!”? The unspoken assumption that everybody else, and all the people that came before you, are idiots.


  5. Specialization-and-trade is the best way to allocate resources. But note that the market only ever approaches, never reaches, equilibrium. The process is continuous, instantaneous, infinitesimal change.
    Likewise, despite the gains, the multiplayer iterated prisoners’ dilemma will always oscillate between cooperate and defect. The optimal strategy is Tit-for-Tat. Start with a green. Thereafter play whatever the counter-party played the move before. Trusting, retaliatory, forgiving and transparent.
    That IS “the best way.” The only constant is change and players must remain attentive.


  6. “Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

    This is known as “bad luck.”

    ― Robert Heinlein


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