Ben Carson is Making the Perfect the Enemy of the Decent

I’m still trying to get my head around the fact that Ben Carson is our Secretary of Housing & Urban Development. He said he wasn’t qualified for the job but the president nominated and the Senate confirmed him anyway. He’s now doing things that HUD secretaries do, like visiting government-funded housing in Columbus, Ohio. Apparently, his primary concern is that these dwellings are not places anyone would be content to live. When shown some pretty decent apartments used for veterans, he cracked that the only thing missing was pool tables. He didn’t mean the vets should have them.

His basic outlook is probably formed primarily by his personal experience of growing up in Detroit in very modest conditions and not letting that hold him back from becoming an accomplished neurosurgeon. And there’s a certain degree of common sense involved in his conviction that making misery comfortable can lead to complacency. Anyone who’s tried to move a teenager out of the nest and into the world knows that it’s a delicate dance. Sometimes, you just have to figure out a way to make them want to leave. But, obviously, that assumes your kid isn’t going to get devoured by wolves and eagles before they reach the sidewalk. The world is filled with people who can’t make it on their own, and many others who may be able to make it one day, just not today. Carson does understand this, but he wants to craft policy around the able-bodied and the capable rather than around those who are truly in need.

“We have some people who are mentally ill. We have some elderly and disabled people. We can’t expect in many cases those people to do a great deal to take care of themselves,” he said. But, he added, “There is another group of people who are able-bodied individuals, and I think we do those people a great disservice when we simply maintain them.”

This is a very common way of looking at the world among conservatives, and it helps explain why you’ll encounter so many people who have benefitted from government help who still deeply resent seeing others on any kind of dole. The idea that someone might squander charitable help or exploit the system to enable a life of idleness is so offensive that many are willing to blow up the whole system and leave behind the mentally ill, the disabled, and even those who just need more time to mature or recover from life’s setbacks.

This makes more sense if you’re talking about something like the death penalty, where it truly does seem wise to blow up the system because of unavoidable errors and unintended consequences. It seems cruel to me, however, when you’re talking about low-income housing or food assistance. Figuring out how to set the incentives correctly is a job for policymakers, and there are always going to be opportunities to improve how social welfare programs are delivered and administered.

But, it seems to me that once you get a consensus that there are a lot of people who can’t “do a great deal to take care of themselves,” you should make them the central focus of your concern. Should they live in horrible soul-crushing conditions just so no one who should be pursuing their gifts might succumb to apathy and miss the chance to one day separate conjoined twins?

The way Carson and so many conservatives view the world isn’t making the perfect the enemy of the good. It’s making the perfect the enemy of the decent.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.