We should avoid the nirvana fallacy

Monday, January 11th, 2021

We are nowhere close to utopia, Arnold Kling reminds us, and we cannot see how to get there:

A major reason for this is lack of knowledge. We know today much more than we knew one hundred years ago. It seems reasonable to expect that in another hundred years, today’s level of knowledge will seem low. If we look at all of the past beliefs that today seem wrong-headed, we should be hesitant to commit to what we believe now.


1. We should be humble about predicting the consequences of public policies. In an economics textbook, a single “market imperfection” is shown in isolation, with the implicit assumption that everything else is perfect. Under those assumptions, the right tax, subsidy, or regulation can reliably produce improvement.

Most economists are familiar with the “theory of the second best,” which points out that trying to fix one problem, when there are other problems or constraints, can make things worse. This is a useful concept, but it only scratches the surface of strong imperfection.

2. We should welcome trial-and-error learning. The economic and social progress we have made is largely due to trial and error, not central planning. Because of strong imperfection, we know that many flaws and problems still exist. It is likely that solutions will come from trial and error going forward, just as in the past.

3. We should try to limit the number of personal flaws that we see as inexcusable. Both as a society and as individuals we should try to extend tolerance and forgiveness. Given our current state, I do not think we can do away with prisons, but I think we should be aiming in the direction of limiting their use. I also think that we should be reducing the number of “firing offenses” in the work place, not adding to them. As individuals, we should aim to reduce the set of excuses for cutting people off as friends.

4. We should avoid the “nirvana fallacy,” which involves comparing the current state to a perfect state. The most realistic change is likely to be from an imperfect current state to another imperfect state.

5. We should resist becoming Manichean. The motives of opponents are usually not as bad as we are inclined to make them out to be.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    Who’s “we?” Who is in charge of these decisions?

    As for myself, the more I see of human nature, the more Manichean I get.

  2. Altitude Zero says:

    There is of course a slight difference between releasing a murderer in the name of “tolerance and forgiveness”, and not firing someone for a tweet that they made seven years ago, but leave it to Kling to not see the difference. What we will get, of course, is fewer prisons for criminals, and more firings for MAGA tweets. It’s called “Anarcho-tyranny, and Sam Francis told us about it a long time ago.

  3. Wang Wei Lin says:

    People who think they can build a utopia have a Messianic complex and should be harshly derided.

  4. Kirk says:

    Every attempted utopia ends as a dystopia. Law of nature, that…

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