In my younger years, I was an unabashed fan of George Will\’s – so much so, that ten years ago I actually created a website in his honor (it seems embarrassingly crude now). Conversely, some young men in their early 20\’s actually decide to do things like \”go on dates.\”
On the site, I transcribed, by hand, a commencement speech Will gave to Washington University graduates in 1998. It discusses how large changes in social policy and individual standing can be accomplished if we simply decide to, through small and simple acts. Some excerpts:
You will be comforted to know, that in practicing our craft, we columnists are required to be brief and change the subject frequently. However, speakers generally should have just one thumping point of great practicality – as, for example, the late Conrad Hilton had when he appeared on \”The Tonight Show\” with Johnny Carson. Carson said to Mr. Hilton, \”You\’re a giant of American attainment, a legend in your own time, you\’ve built hotels all over the world, turn to the camera right over there, look your fellow countrymen in the eye and tell them the one thing based on your life\’s work that you would like your fellow countrymen to know.\” Like a great trooper, Hilton turned to the camera, looked America in the eye and said, \”Please, put the curtain inside the tub.\” (If you owned a quarter of a million bathtubs, you would say the same thing.)
A make-believe commencement address, written by someone who claimed to have been overdosed on coffee and M&Ms, offered graduates two injunctions: use sunscreen and floss regularly. Good advice, but not as important as the advice that I herewith give you, drawing on my expertise in the field in which I have the most expertise. To Washington University\’s Class of 1998, I say, my cardinal rule of life is: With a runner on second and no outs, try to hit behind the runner.
These micro-rules – put the curtain in the tub, use sun screen, floss, hit behind the runner – may seem to you a tad too minor to merit attention, particularly on a day this momentous. However (and here we come to my macro-point), small rules illuminate a few huge truths about lives – about the lives of individuals, and the lives of nations.
One truth is this: follow the simple micro-rules and you might avoid a lot of macro-problems that will elicit ever-more complex and coagulating rules, laws, and regulations.
Another truth is this: There are moments, and you are graduating into one, when people complain – well, journalists, who are not exactly people, complain – that there is scant news because the nation has a \”miniaturized\” political agenda. Well, class of 1998, let me tell you: This miniaturized national agenda is a sign of national health. And this health has something to do with learning – re-discovering, really – simple rules.
Let me give you two examples. One considers the physical health of individuals, and health care policy. The other concerns collective life – social policy, pertaining to poverty and education.
First, individual health. Does America want to improve its public health, and significantly reduce the portion of GDP devoted to health care? If so, then, America only needs to substantially reduce five things: vehicular accidents, violence, coronary heart disease, lung cancer, and AIDS. And Americans can reduce these five by simply deciding to do so.
What do these five have in common? The are all, to a significant extent, results of behavior – behavior known to be risky. So a substantial improvement in public health could be achieved by people deciding to behave more prudently – by deciding not to smoke, and to eat and drink and engage in sex more sensibly.
You see? Simple rules, no more recondite or demanding than \”put the curtain inside the tub\” or \”hit behind the runner.\” Now, consider the role that can be played by simple rules in public policy. Consider what we have learned about the problem of intractable poverty. It turns out that there are three rules for avoiding long-term poverty – rules which make it unlikely that a person adhering to them will fall into such poverty. The three rules are:
First, graduate from high school. Second, have no child out of wedlock. Third, have no child before you are 20.
This is not a moral assertion, it is an empirical observation: The portion of the population that today is caught in long-term poverty consists overwhelmingly of people who have disregarded one or more of these rules.
We now know what is required to get those who are trapped in poverty onto the ladder of upward mobility. What is required is some mixture of incentives and other assistance for those people to live by some simple rules of prudence. Again, small rules of behavior.
Similarly, after forty years of trying to improve education from grades K through 12, by a mixture of money and educational fads, we know now that the best predictor of a school\’s performance is the caliber of the families from which the children come to school. Indeed, the four most crucial variables determining a school\’s success are not variables at school. They are number of parents in the home, the amount of homework done in the home, the quantity and quality of reading material in the home, and the amount of television watched in the home. Government can do next to nothing to influence these variables.
So, yet again: Small rules of behavior, not unlike putting the curtain inside the tub or hitting behind the runner.
Read the whole thing here.