Some years ago Lester Maddox, the former governor of Georgia, came up with a mindlessly cheerful -- yet stunningly obvious -- solution to the problems that trouble our prisons. The problem with our prisons, he said, is caused by the class of people who inhabit them. Clearly, then, we need a better class of prisoner.

Who could deny it? And, if we could but continue to improve the class of prisoner, soon there would be no need for prisons at all and we would be well on the road to Utopia. On the other hand, it would seem recklessly foolish to expect that happy day any time soon -- or, for that matter, any time before the end of time. Yet, like many utopian visionaries, the man was on to something, something important, and something we might all keep in mind this election year, riddled as it is with the usual combination of cynicism and idealism. Perhaps more than the usual.

Sometimes cynicism seems to dominate. The vice president's press secretary Peter Teeley was recently quoted in The New York Times as saying, "You can say anything you want during a (television) debate, and 80 million people hear it." If it is later documented that the "anything" was in fact untrue, "so what? Maybe 200 people read it or 2,000 or 20,000."

In the short run, Mr. Teeley's off-the-cuff judgment seems to have, if not exactly merit, at least some real correspondence with the world as we know it, however much we might prefer to believe otherwise. I think, in fact, that he was regrettably on the mark -- in the short run. But if we truly believed that in the long run the facts don't matter either (and I doubt he believes that any more than I do), then there would be no need for this or any other newspaper or book or pamphlet or speech; no need to ferret out the truth of this or that statement; no need for the painful effort to find the truth or the sometimes even more painful effort to tell it. We could all lie back and be entertained -- and manipulated -- by commercials designed to sell the product by making us feel good, whether the product is Pepsi-Cola or the president -- and, in fact, the same person has been engaged in both television advertising campaigns. We could then make our political decisions on the basis of how good the opposing commercials made us feel. Of course, carried to its extreme, that would mean the end of this flawed but democratic society.

Democratic society, however, is not based on extremes -- neither the extreme of the cynic nor the extreme of the utopian, though it needs both: the cynic to keep us anchored to the reality of human limitations, and the dreamer to free us from them, to make us see that this world could be better -- not best, merely better, a day at a time, an inch at a time. Marx and Christ and Gandhi were, after all, noble dreamers, and Marx's famous dictum -- "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" -- is simply the Christian message of charity and love phrased another way. The critical difference been Christ and Marx, however, is that Marx believed perfection was possible in this world and that he knew how to go about attaining it, while Christ believed that it would be achieved elsewhere and that getting there involved a personal rather than a social struggle.

That idea of the perfectability of man in this world seems to me to be the second most dangerous notion in Western civilization: the idea that man is essentially good (Rousseau's "noble savage") but corrupted by society; overthrow the society and man will return to the state of grace in the state of nature before the fall. The bloody aftermath of the French Revolution might have disabused us of that notion, but did not.

The most dangerous notion, however, is its exact opposite: the Hobbesian belief that life in a state of nature is "nasty, short and brutish," and therefore only an absolutist government can control man's conflicting desires and make possible the fragile construct of our civilization.

In this century we have seen the flowering of the first idea in the Soviet Union, a government founded on the most noble of ideals of Marx -- but which still awaits the withering away of the autocratic state in which oppression is the rule rather than the exception. We have seen the second in its most extreme form in Nazi Germany. Curiously, both those totalitarian societies professed to perfect us; curiously, too, for many in those societies life was indeed "nasty, short and brutish."

So we need cynics and we need dreamers, but in the life of politics we need to take both with a large grain of salt. Lester Maddox was absolutely right: the world could use a better class of prisoner. The possibility is important to believe in, while we work with the class we have -- and are -- and work to improve it; forget about perfecting it. That, it seems to me, is what democratic governments are all about, and what keeps this democracy somehow muddling through. That and the conviction that facts are facts, that the truth of a situation can be reasonably ascertained, and that people will respond to that truth.