Daily Archives: January 9, 2014

To err is human. And bureaucratic.


Roosevelt quoteErrare humanum est, perseverare diabolicum, et tertium non datur. To err is human; to persevere in error is diabolical; there is no third option.

Bit of a tough love phrase, that one. Most of us know this as the later paraphrase of Alexander Pope: to err is humane, to forgive divine. Yes, he wrote “humane” because that’s how they wrote “human” in the early 18th century. And he was making a statement about critics, not about religion. But you get the drift.*

Pope’s phrase is a staple in politics. To err is human, and governments are composed of people. In his speech to the Democratic National Convention, in 1936, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, said those words in the image above:

Governments can err, presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that Divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on different scales. Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.

That’s worth repeating: Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.

Clearly others agreed, because Roosevelt was re-elected by a landslide that year. What impresses me is Roosevelt’s insistence that it is better to have a government that sometimes errs, yet cares for its constituents, than a government that doesn’t make the effort because it fears those mistakes. Or makes its decisions based on frozen ideology, rather than situational ethics, rather than looking for the greater good outside the myopic view.

Of course, we all err; we all have the benefit of hindsight that tells us what we might have done better, what we might have improved, which fork in the road would have been the better – not just the shortest or fastest – route. As Billy Wilder quipped, hindsight is always 20-20. We see the past better than the future.

In response to those armchair quarterbacks who were quick to point out the better way he might have followed, Roosevelt might have paraphrased John 8: “Let any one of you who has never made a mistake be the first to throw a stone at the decision makers.”
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