“If they go wrong, the damage is not very great”

Even anti-utopians have been too hopeful. Karl Popper, the philosopher, was known for contrasting Utopian engineering with what he calls the more realistic approach of piecemeal engineering:

It is infinitely more difficult to reason about an ideal society. Social life is so complicated that few men, or none at all, could judge a blueprint for social engineering on the grand scale; whether it is practicable; whether it would result in a real improvement; what kind of suffering it may involve; and what may be the means for its realization. As opposed to this, blueprints for piecemeal engineering are comparatively simple. They are blueprints for single institutions, for health and unemployed insurance, for instance. . . If they go wrong, the damage is not very great, and a re-adjustment not very difficult. They are less risky, and for this very reason less controversial.

If they go wrong, the damage is not very great”!? It is precisely the case of health insurance (and educational reform, government budgeting and financial deregulation, for that matter), where blueprint design has been damaging. We need look no further than the contemporary politics of progressively higher volatility and retrogressively fewer options to explain the gap between what Popper confidently wrote and where even that confidence has dissipated.

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