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.