"The Worse, the Better."

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The quotation, "The Worse, the Better," means that if things get worse, then that will help them get better. It has wide application, but the main application is the idea that the political situation must get intolerable so people will rise up and so something about it, e.g. have a violent communist revolution.


Here are a variety of ways you might say it:

"The worse the better."

"The worse, the better."

"The Worse, the Better."

"Чем хуже, тем лучше" or Chyem hoozhye, tyem looschye."
(correct Russian)

"Xуже, лучше" or "Hoozhye, looshchye."
(abbreviated Russian)

"Malior melior."
(abbreviated dog Latin)

"Tanto malior tanto melior."
(long dog Latin (does that mean dachsund Latin?))

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I thank Dimitriy Masterov and Professor Ben Golub for correcting my Russian on Twitter. My friend the classics PhD suggested "tanto". I don't know if I did it right. He said it was some sort of a outlandish ablative preposition in this context (not his words; I forget his technical term but I will ask him).


The quotation, "The Worse, the Better," means that if things get worse, then that will help them get better. It has wide application, but the main application is the idea that the political situation must get intolerable so people will rise up and so something about it, e.g. have a violent communist revolution.

Dimitriy Masterov calls our attention to Theodore Dostoevsky, Ф.М. Достоевский. Дневник писателя. 1881. Январь. Глава первая, chapter II: "ВОЗМОЖНО ЛЬ У НАС СПРАШИВАТЬЕВРОПЕЙСКИХ ФИНАНСОВ?", "Questions to Ask Ourselves of European Finance,", or something like that, p. 479:

«К чему я стану трудиться, коли я самой культурой моей доведен до того, что всё, что кругом меня, отрицаю? А если и есть колпаки, которые думают спасти здание какими-то европейскими измышлениями,— то я и колпаков отрицаю, а верю лишь в то, что чем хуже, тем лучше, и вот вся моя философия». Уверяю вас, что у нас теперь это очень многие говорят, про себя по крайней мере, а иные так и вслух. И, однако, говорящий такие афоризмы человек сам-то ведь из костей и плоти. «Чем хуже, тем лучше,— говорит он,— но это ведь только для других, для всех, а самому-то мне пусть будет как можно лучше»,— вот ведь как он разумеет свою философию.

Or, with Google translate (my Russian is extremely weak):

“Why am I going to work, if I have been driven by my culture to the point where I deny everything around me? And if there are hoods that think to save the building with some European fabrications, then I deny the hoods, but I only believe that the worse the better, and this is my whole philosophy. ” Trust me, that we now have a lot of people say this, at least to themselves, while others say it aloud. And, however, the person who speaks such aphorisms is himself, after all, from bones and flesh. “The worse, the better,” he says, “but this is only for others, for everyone, and let it be as best for me as possible” —this is how he understands his philosophy.

I was struck that this essay starts off by saying "How am I an economist?" I hadn't realized my profession had an influence on Dostoevsky. The essay is probably worth reading to understand the problems that arose with desocialization in the 90's (1990's that is).

Wikipedia says in its article on Nikolay Chernyshevsky, author of the 1863 novel What Is To Be Done, whose title Lenin also swiped, for a pamphlet,

He is reputed to have used the phrase “the worse the better”, to indicate that the worse the social conditions became for the poor, the more inclined they would be to launch a revolution (though he did not originate the phrase, which predates his birth; for example, in an 1814 letter John Adams used it when discussing the lead-up to the American revolution[9])

Footnote 9 is to Joseph Ellis, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (2001) p. 84.

It looks to me as if Dostoevsky is alluding to Chernyshevsky in his essay. But I will leave this for now. Eventually maybe I'll write this up as a Wikiquotes article.

"Worse Is Better" Meaning "New Jersey Style" in Computer Science

The article on this says

Worse is better (also called the New Jersey style[1]) is a term conceived by Richard P. Gabriel in an essay of the same name to describe the dynamics of software acceptance. It refers to the argument that software quality does not necessarily increase with functionality: that there is a point where less functionality ("worse") is a preferable option ("better") in terms of practicality and usability. Software that is limited, but simple to use, may be more appealing to the user and market than the reverse.

See also the article by Stanford students John Hiesey and Keith Schwarz.

Applications: Ceiling Leaks, New Year's Resolutions

The phrase has many good applications besides revolution. I was moved to write this by one in particular. My daughter woke me this morning telling me the kitchen ceiling was leaking. There was a water leak above the ceiling, from the washing machine leaking all night. As Chernyshevsky said, "Что делать?" What is to be done? Must someone remove the drywall? After some investigation and movement of towels and receptacles, we discovered an ingenious solution: drill a hole in the ceiling and put a bucket beneath. The water then poured down from one place instead of dripping from several cracks in the paint. As the Russians say, "Chyem hoozhye, tyem looschye."

A second application comes from page 2 of F. H. Buckley's 2021 book, Curiosity:

If we think we're weak-willed, we might make rules to remove temptation from our path. For example, we might think that it would be a good thing to give up desserts and then back this up with a New Year's resolution. That way, when we have dessert in February, we'll have committed a double wrong: we'll have eaten the forbidden pie, and we'll have confessed to ourselves that we're too weak willed to stick to the resolution. We'll have shamed ourselves, and the fear of doing so might help keep us dessert-free.

Buckley's Pie example is quite different from Revolution and Ceiling Leaks. Those two are about actually making things worse in order to reach a good result later. The Pie example is what in game theory we call "a threat": a commitment to a bad result contingent on an earlier action occurring, a commitment made to deter the earlier action. We do not actually have to feel shame in February, because the fear of shame deters our eating the pie. Thus, Worse never actually happens. It is just a threat, a threat never carried out in equilibrium, in what we actually do, because its occurrence in our forecast forestalls reality.