Earlier this week, introducing his plan to reduce roadway deaths, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg declared that “every driver, passenger, and pedestrian should be certain that they’re going to arrive at their destination safely, every time.” This was anodyne rhetoric, and in the scheme of things, it probably actually was harmless. But harmless rhetoric can be revealing, and this statement revealed a continued erosion of our understanding that there are limits and tradeoffs involved in most facets–make that “every” facet–of political life.
There is a way to reduce roadway deaths to zero. It is to reduce the speed limit to 5 miles per hour, or some such absurd number. Needless to say, Buttigieg neither does nor should favor that. Still, one need not begrudge him rhetorical flourishes to see that this was a missed opportunity to treat citizens as adults, as in: “We can’t reduce roadway deaths to zero without making tradeoffs none of us would accept. But we can make driving at reasonable speeds as safe as possible.”
Nothing in such a statement would qualify for front-page reporting or excerpting for a sound bite. But it might have helped to cultivate the virtue of prudence. Prudent reasoning recognizes there are always limits and consequently always choices. (Prudence only pertains to what could be otherwise, Aristotle teaches.) Edmund Burke captures the importance but also the reality of limits: “The rights of men in governments are their advantages; and these are often in balances between differences of good; in compromises sometimes between good and evil, and sometimes between evil and evil.”
Again, we need not plumb a press release for profound meeting. On the other hand, a leader who thought in terms of limits might have spoken more prudently than Buttigieg did.