The week after Christmas is generally one that finds millions of parents struggling with the unintended consequences of an innocuous warning: “Batteries not included.” Reflecting on this annual frustration with the unanticipated negative results of the very best of intentions led me to puzzle over the meaning of another cliché: “The devil is in the details.”

Why so ominous a warning? Why not “the difficulty”? Or even “the danger”? Why are details “devilish”? Why do mere details conjure up so active and so malevolent a force about which we must be warned?

The immediate answer for a technophobe like me is that the thicket of incomprehensible details is the favorite habitat of my evil doppelganger, fiendish-eyed Chucky. He’s the digital demon who shows up every time I try to upgrade a software program or purchase a new device. However simple or obvious the task, he turns what for everyone I know under the age of 13 is a nearly instantaneous time-saving convenience into a slow two-hour descent into the ninth circle of customer service hell, a place where I’m invariable welcomed as a source of devilish mirth.

Question: “Wow, I’ve never seen that one before. How’d you do that?”

Response: “I followed the instructions to the letter!”

Comment: “Oh, dangerous. You should do what it means, not what it says!”

But this fear is just old-guy frustration. It’s too narrow and too insignificant to support so long-standing and general a warning. A predisposition to personalize Murphy’s Law is hardly a demon worthy of a night’s worth of wrestling.

So what more significant nugget of wisdom lies in this so widely acknowledged warning?

At the last election, Maine voters approved (albeit narrowly) the use of marijuana for recreational purposes. Suddenly scores of communities all across the state are saying, “Whoa, slow down; let’s figure out what this really means and how we’re actually going to do this.”

Voters also approved an income tax surcharge intended to increase funding for education. Now the governor and the Legislature are gearing up to see how this initiative will or will not be put into practice.

All of these emerging struggles with devilish details remind me of the last major effort at tax reform in Maine, in 2009. No sooner had the Legislature passed L.D. 1495 – a two-year, bipartisan effort to restructure all basic elements of Maine’s tax system, including the income tax, the sales tax and the property tax – than the Republican Party began gathering signatures for a “people’s veto” initiative to repeal the just-passed law.

They gathered the signatures, and sure enough in November, the law was repealed, and tax reform returned to the clouds of dreamy imagery: “I’m in favor of it as long as it doesn’t change anything that I want to keep.”

And therein lies the devil: Not in the intricacy of the details, but in the all-too-human susceptibility to the temptation of painless change. Getting what I want in a public forum may be difficult. It may even be dangerous. But it is certainly not devilish unless it involves some struggle with evil, some temptation, some test of courage that forces me to come to understand, through deep and lengthy consideration, what is the public interest and how might it differ from my private interest.

This inevitably leads me to confront the reality of my resistance to such change. The devil isn’t the details themselves. The devil is in the details. The devil in the details is the temptation to run for cover, to choose cowardice over courage, to back away from the painful personal transformation that any significant solution to social problems requires.

And so the cliché holds some deep truth for those charged with putting our laws into practical application. What are we intending to accomplish? In regulation of mood-altering chemicals? In improving education? In increasing the supply of affordable housing? In reforming how we finance public goods and services? In striking deals with international trade partners? In making productive employment more possible for those not now in the labor force? In welcoming into our state those willing to come and work to improve their lives here? The list of thickets of inconvenient details is virtually endless.

And how do searching and fearless answers to these questions make us feel? If we aren’t encountering devils in these questions, we’re not looking very hard, and we’re not very likely to effect any meaningful changes in our current situation. Each of us does not need to fully understand every detail in order to achieve a common goal. But each of us does need to confront the temptation the details present to us.

Consulting economist Charles Lawton, Ph.D., can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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