The Medical Mistake

Chesterton believed that our countless failures in practical politics are due to a very simple logical mistake. He believed that politicians and social commentators begin at the wrong end of the political question or social problem. They begin with the remedy or cure.

We can see this today in what passes for political debate. If there is a problem in education, one candidate will call for an increase of federal spending on teachers’ salaries, another recommends a voucher program to provide parental choice, a third wants privatization and competition, a fourth demands local control, and so on. Other social issues receive the same treatment. Each politician has a portfolio of solutions to major problems as if he were a physician with a black bag full of pills.

Medical science is content with the normal human body, and only seeks to restore it. But exactly the whole difficulty in our public problems is that some men are aiming at cures which other men would regard as worse maladies.

Chesterton insisted that we stop this initial focus on the remedy as if the body politic were a diseased patient in a hospital. He insisted that we begin instead by settling the question of what it is we want. We have to know what we are aiming for, what our goal is, or (to use Chesteron’s word) what our ideals are. Unless we agree on the kind of society we think will be good, we have no chance of agreeing on the best policies to get us there.

For further reading in Chesterton’s works see What’s Wrong with the World, especially Part One, Chapter I, “The Medical Mistake.”

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