From Harper's April 2007 index:
- Percentage of American adults held in either prison or mental institutions in 1953 and today, respectively: 0.67, 0.68
- Percentage of these adults in 1953 who were in mental institutions: 75
- Percentage today who are in prisons: 97
Lots of men love alcohol and love their families. The men who love alcohol more than their family have very different lives from the ones who love their family more than they love alcohol.
A list of values is of little value for decisions unless it is prioritized. For instance, an institution may value both innovation and tradition. If the institution is a computer chip manufacturer, they may do well to value innovation more than tradition. If the institution is a church, they may do well to reverse that, valuing tradition more than innovation.
Some choices in life and politics are between bad and bad. Politicians like to pretend that they will institute a system that will provide for the needy, but only the needy. Well, this promise is nonsense. A welfare system will have a margin of error. It will either do the bad thing of abandoning genuinely helpless people who need help - the orphans, the mentally incompetent, the unfortunate - or it will do the bad thing of subsidizing the lifestyle of the lazy, the leeches, the societal parasites who exploit assistance. The question is not whether you'd like a perfect system. Everyone would. The question is whether you would prefer a system that ensures that the weak and helpless were cared for at the risk of including those who ought not to get help or a system that makes sure no cheaters get helped at the risk of abandoning those who genuinely need help.
In this sense, the game of politics is rather like the children's game of "Would you rather ... be sat on by an elephant or eaten by a tiger?" Wouldn't it be fun to force candidates to play this game? Would you rather take away freedoms of everyone or allow the tragic death of some? Leave unfortunates homeless and ill or subsidize the slothful? Alllow tyranny to persist or launch an invasion and occupation? Chase investment capital out of the country or abuse workers? Bankrupt farmers or subsidize the cost of food and increase the incidence of obesity? Destroy the environment or trigger an economic depression? Subsidize a person in a mental institution or in a prison, treat him like a person with a mental health problem or a criminal?
Politicians tend to sound alike when talking about the ideals they espouse and would pursue. The compassionate conservative might sound just like the pragmatic liberal. But how different they might sound if instead of talking about the ideal they'd pursue, they spoke instead about the lesser of evils, of how they might choose between two bads. Now that would be fascinating to hear and would, I think, tell us much more about who they really are. It is the choice made between two goods or two bads that defines us.