Focus on the three most frequent kinds of “good-enough” in public policy and management. One is “we’ve gone this far and that’s good enough.” We of the mid-twentieth century were told that an annual economic growth rate of 3% and an unemployment rate of 4%, while not perfect, were certainly good enough.
The second good-enough is the more common, “we’ve gone this far, but that’s not good enough; we must go further.” In a policy world of many unknowns, reducing uncertainty gets us part of the way, but we’ve also got to manage uncertainty that is not going away anytime soon. We recognize this need to go beyond “just coping,” even though many already know that a hundred year from now, people will ask, “How could they ever have been uncertain about that!”
The third type of good-enough is problematic in a different way: Sometimes we have to go too far in order to know what was good enough. (Or on the upside: “How can anyone settle for safety when they have never taken a risk?” early race-car driver, Hélène Delange, asked.) “We’re at the limits of our understanding of how monetary policy affects the economy,” an experienced banker tells us; “Sometimes when you test the limits you find out where the limits are by breaking through and going too far”. It has often been said that we have to risk their overutilization in order to establish just what really are sustainable yields of forests or fish. In a world where tipping points exist, such pushing to and over the edge understandably causes concern. (To put it a different way, the edge of cognition is when thinking about consequences is itself too consequential to grasp.)
I want to suggest a fourth type of good-enough in public policy, though in my experience it rarely is taken as such. If, as Sartre put it in No Exit, “hell is other people,” then heaven is where other people don’t make hells for the rest of us. These others have been good enough in forestalling a failure that very likely would have happened, but were not or have not been able to go far enough to make it last longer.
Like others, I think here of Anwar Sadat, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Nelson Mandela (or the lesser known and on a smaller scale, Botswana’s Seretse Khama and Ketumile Masire)—each a very imperfect person, comrade and leader, but each preventing some fresh hell on earth. They were good enough to take us further than we could or should have ever expected, albeit we want to go further than they took us.
Who, anyway, can expect perfection in this life? That Christ was the first Christian doodler and painter—think John 8:6-8, where he bends down to draw something in the dirt, and Veronica’s veil upon which he wiped his exact image—neither makes him good-enough in either, even if, as some say, he was as good as you’re going to get—and even then, maybe just only.