Heroism is a Symptom of Political Dysfunction

Enron billionaire John Arnold took a break on Tuesday from his long-standing project of taking away the pensions of public employees in order to provide $10 million to keep Head Start programs running during the government shutdown. This is perhaps one of the more depressing spectacles so far to come out of the shutdown mess. The early education of poor kids in America now partially swings on the whims of a man with way more money than he deserves to have in the first place.

This development reminded me of a Corey Robin post from April of last year. In it, Robin attacks the media gushing that followed Cory Booker rescuing a neighbor from a burning house. His point is that Booker’s rescue — and indeed many of Booker’s antics — are things that normally should be done automatically by a well-functioning and well-funded set of government services. That Booker even has the opportunity to do something like rescue someone from a burning building is a sign of institutional failure in fire services.

Certain kinds of everyday heroism will always be important and unavoidable, but the goal of a set of social institutions should be to destroy as many opportunities for heroism as possible. Heroism is only possible where some kind of tragedy is imminent. But a good social system snuffs out avoidable tragedies before they even have a chance of approaching imminence. In many cases therefore, the existence of heroism is actually a deeply troubling symptom of overall political dysfunction. It should not be met with adoration, but with horror and concern.

This Head Start case is the best example I’ve seen so far in this genre of troubling heroism. It should never be the case that poor kids are on the cusp of not getting important early childhood education intervention. If keeping them from that education is a bad thing that shouldn’t happen, we should make sure it never happens. The institutions should be designed so that the kids automatically get the service, no matter what the charitable whims of private billionaires happen to be.

Perversely, when institutional dysfunction increases, the chances for heroic intervention also increases. But with a media trained to lap up the heroism as unalloyed good, we will be treated to doses of heartwarming sentiments, not the more appropriate mouth-gaping awe at a social system in decline.

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