As is often the case, baseball led me to an epiphany regarding the recent “Do something!” mania. Bill James, in the 2023 Bill James Baseball Handbook, was discussing the how the tactic of the intentional walk—when a manager orders that an opposing batter be avoided and placed on first base on the theory that the lesser risk is facing the batter after him, even though placing another potential run on base tempts fate—has become increasingly rare, when once it was very common. James writes that this was a bad gamble all along (except in rare situations, like when a team’s best hitter has its worst hitter batting behind him) but was popular because managers and coaches in all sports overuse strategies that “give them control over the flow of action.”
“It’s human nature,” observes James. “It happens in all offices, all businesses. Managers over-manage because letting events take their course feels risky.”
Of course! Upon reflection that seems self-evident, but because I am slow, apparently, I never quite framed it that way in my mind before. Leaders think like managers, and the populations they lead identify assertive action with strong leadership and letting matters take their course with weakness. In truth, deciding that the best course is to do nothing is just as much a proactive decision as “doing something,” and often a more courageous one. But there it is again: human nature. The applicable Ethics Alarms motto is “Human nature is the ultimate pre-unethical condition.”
“Do something!” has led to some of the worst disasters and debacles throughout recorded history. Marxism and Communism is one of the most vivid examples: the idea was that something needed to be done about the human tendency for societies to stratify into classes and economic divisions, often because of natural variations in intelligence, strength, skill, education and industry, but also because of luck and social systems that fueled inequality. The fact is that the theory defied what was known even in Marx’s day as human nature, but the “Do something!” revolutionaries plowed ahead anyway, with resulting human, economic and political carnage.
Revolutions are typically “Do something!” phenomena, blind leaps into the unknown executed in desperation. They leave the results to moral luck: the American revolutionaries in 1776 were fortunate against all odds; the French revolutionaries two decades later were not: their “something” made conditions substantially worse. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was a “Do something!” moment that I have analogized—correctly!—to the famous moment in “Animal House” when the Delta House members, led by wiseass Otter (Tim Matheson) and chaotic Bluto (John Belushi), conclude that the only solution they can muster to being kicked off campus is a “really futile and stupid gesture” to display their frustration, anger and contempt for the powers that be. Thus the inspiration for Rationalization #40 A., Otter’s Solution, or “I had to do something!” which is…
…”an invitation to be unethical, irrational, reckless and irresponsible, bypassing law, values, common sense, and any other obstacle that usually constrains bad policy and conduct. It creates an intellectually dishonest shortcut, making the decision to act before any effective action is considered, designating action the objective rather than what the objective of the action should be. Obviously this is backwards, and it is intentionally backwards, because it takes a detour around essential questions, responsible decision makers must consider before acting, like “Is this legal?” “Is this wise?” “What will be the long term consequences?,” “Can this work?” and “What are the costs?” Rationalization 40A makes the conduct itself the objective rather than the results of the conduct. The imaginary virtue is taking action—even if it is futile and stupid.And, if one challenges the badly-reasoned “something” that 40 A supports, one often will be challenged by 40 B. The Lone Inspiration Excuse, or “Do You Have A Better Idea?”
One of the most destructive instances of the “Do something!” fallacy was the 2020 Wuhan virus lock-down, which had disastrous results that were still being discovered and quantified. It’s a good test case for the new Ethics Alarms “Do Something!” Scale, introduced last week and revised according to suggestions from the commentariat. This is its current form:
The “Do Something” Scale
1. There are clear and verified actions to take that unquestionably will significantly ameliorate or eliminate the problem.
2. There are clear and verified actions to take that have a reasonable chance of reducing the negative consequences of the problem without unacceptable risk or expense.
3. There may be clear and verified actions to take that have a reasonable chance of reducing the negative consequences of the problem, but there is not sufficient data or research to justify taking such action yet.
4. The are proposed actions to take that credible authorities believe will significantly ameliorate or eliminate the problem, but equally credible authorities disagree.
5. There are proposed actions to take that some credible authorities believe will significantly ameliorate or eliminate the problem, but more equally credible authorities disagree, and the actions involve great risk, uncertainly, and expense.
6. The is a proposed course of action that only one or a small minority of experts believes will significantly ameliorate or eliminate the problem, but it is the only proposed solution there is.
7. The problem has no apparent or available practical, rational, affordable solutions, but it is deemed important to try something anyway, even if there is scant chance of success.
8. The problem has no apparent or available practical, rational, affordable solutions, but it is deemed important to try something anyway, even if there is no chance of success and though there may be real and significant risks incurred by taking the proposed action.
9. The problem has no apparent or available practical, rational, affordable solutions, but it is deemed important to try something anyway, even if there is no chance of success and there are real and significant risks that taking the proposed action will cause other devastating problems, and though the possibilities for unanticipated negative consequences are extensive.
10. The problem has no apparent or available practical, rational, affordable solutions, but it is deemed important to try something anyway, even if there is no chance of success and though there may be real and significant risks that taking the proposed action will cause other devastating problems and have unanticipated negative consequences, because only one side of the partisan divide will acknowledge reality while the other side deliberately dismisses it because they do not value what may be damaged or lost as a result of their futile grandstanding.
The decision to lock down schools, communities, businesses and much of social interaction in general must be assigned a #9 on the scale. The public was lied to and deceived into believing the “something” was based on “science” when it was really based on guesswork, panic, desperation, arrogance and politics. That assessment does not mean that the “Do something!” impulse realistically could have been resisted. I doubt that it could have been, especially with the news media deliberately creating as much fear and anxiety as it possibly could. Had the same number of people died from (or “with” the virus, a separate infuriating issue) without the lock-down, mask mandates and other measures of illusory effectiveness, the political and social upheavals would have been massive.
Sometimes it really is important to do something in order to appear to be trying to address a crisis, or, to put it another way, in order not to appear to be apathetic, passive and incompetent. After the Great Depression struck in 1929, Herbert Hoover was run out of office not only because of the perception that he was to blame for the Crash, but that he wasn’t doing anything to reverse the economic collapse. Today economists generally agree that President Roosevelt’s aggressive policies were ineffective in relieving the Depression’s substantive effects and probably exacerbated them. However, it is also likely that had he not appeared to be trying everything possible to deal with the crisis, there may well have been extensive social unrest and even a revolution. (It helped, of course, that Roosevelt was a masterful and charismatic leader who excelled at public relations.)
I give FDR’s New Deal a #5 score on the scale: “The are proposed actions to take that some credible authorities believe will significantly ameliorate or eliminate the problem, but more equally credible authorities disagree, and the actions involve great risk, uncertainly, and expense.”
I’ll conclude with brief rankings of a few current “Do something!” measures being proposed or, in some cases , being implemented.
- Climate change. #10.
- Gun control. #10.
- Slavery/Jim Crow. #10 (includes reparations, Critical Race Theory, DEI)
- “Hate speech.” #10
- Illegal immigration (“comprehensive immigration reform”). #1; but unfortunately enforcing existing laws, obvious as it may be, isn’t an acceptable “something” to an entire political party.
- Health care costs. #7
Feel free to add to the list.
9 thoughts on “The Trouble With “Do Something!” Part II: Applying The Scale”
Can not health care costs be fixed with price controls?
The experience with price controls demonstrates pretty clearly that the “cure” is worse than the disease. Wht they would likely mean for health care is terrifying.
We’re getting ready to try that with prescription drugs. It’s going to be really hard to quantify the ultimate effects, but the thought is that they will either curtail the development of new drugs or result in new drugs being priced much higher to avoid the price controls — or both.
The opposite of ‘Do something!’ is ‘Wise and masterly inactivity’. Much underused these days.
Been going back and forth all day (appropriately, perhaps) about whether I should comment or not).
Eventually, the inclination to comment won out, because I think it will do some good.
However, my hesitation is based upon the effort it would take to frame a fully organized and coherent response.
So, having abandoned that as a goal, there is no reason not to comment.
First off, a few first principles when it comes to action and inaction:
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” -Edmund Burke (attribution may be disputed)
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of good is for evil men to do nothing.” -JutGory
“All human action is aimed toward some good.” -Aristotle (heavily paraphrased opening lines from the Nicomachean Ethics)
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” -Pascal
The inclination to “do something” is natural because we all view our actions as good and we don’t want to stand by while evil people are causing trouble.
The problem with this mindset is that good people and evil people are often equally stupid.
The people who killed Emmett Till thought they were carrying out some good and they did not want to be one of those good people who did nothing.
Tea Party Members.
Along with the laundry list of protesters, strikers, and saboteurs.
But, there are a couple of higher order considerations. Sometimes, action and inaction is simply a Cover Your Ass scenario. Doing something (anything) is the safest course of action to avoid blame.
You mentioned a good example with Hoover and Roosevelt. Hoover did nothing and so could be accused of not addressing a crisis. Roosevelt did something and by doing something he could avoid the accusation of doing nothing. If things got worse under Hoover, it was his fault for doing nothing. If things got worse under Roosevelt, he could always argue that it could have been worse if he had not done anything; of course, this proposition is impossible to disprove (at least not before the next election cycle).
Politicians are particularly vulnerable to this inclination. During the financial crisis of 2008, or in the aftermath of 9/11, doing nothing is hardly an option. Had nothing been done after 2008, several banks might have folded (and that might have been a good thing). But, if the Government acted and several banks still folded, the politicians could claim that they averted worse results. At the same time, if no other banks would have folded if they had done nothing, they could claim victory though their actions. Roosevelt often gets credit for taking damaging actions because most people don’t understand how his actions affected the economy.
Those are examples where you are trying to avoid bad things getting worse.
A different example is when actions are to make things better. Yeah, it is a vague distinction, but this is where my hesitancy to comment came in.
You mentioned the American Revolution, French Revolution and the Communist Revolution. Those scenarios are a little bit different from the Great Depression and the Financial Crisis of 2008. The Revolutions were intended to improve the status quo, while the others were to prevent bad things from getting worse.
Improving the status quo is often riskier because doing something does not cover your ass. The United States got lucky. Doing something actually succeeded in its goals (though some detractors argue that the United States would have been better off not becoming independent because slavery would have been abolished earlier). The revolutions in France and Russia ended badly (and validated Jefferson’s observation in the Declaration that long-established systems should not be discarded lightly, as such actions often result in worse conditions. (Again, heavily paraphrased.)
Tangent: What I like about the conservative side of the Supreme Court is that it is often inclined to do nothing. Scalia, if I recall was very good at saying that it was not his role to use his power. This is a bit different from the above discussion because that inclination to do nothing is based upon the principle not to abuse one’s power.
Come to think of it, it may not be that different, as much of the expansion of the powers of the federal government is based upon the failure of politicians not to act, even if they had no constitutional authority to do so.
Anyway, I think my inclination to do nothing stems as much from laziness as it does from the distrust of the herd that always seems intent on doing something.
Great post, exactly what I was hoping this topic would spark, and Comment of the Day.
In my disorganized state, there was an observation I failed to make: where doing nothing will actually serve to cover your ass.
You see this in lots of bureaucracies. If someone is trying to get a drug approved, the FDA can drag its feet and create all kinds of hoops to prevent approval of the drug. That way, they can never be blamed for the consequences in approving a drug prematurely, while the bad consequences of their failure to approve the drug go largely ignored. For instance, if they approve a drug and 10 people die from some side-effect, the FDA is incompetent, even if 90 people are helped by the drug. However, if they don’t approve the drug and 100 people die, we don’t notice that, as those deaths are part of the status quo. And, those deaths can’t be tied to their inaction because they can claim they are doing their job.
Of course, the recent flip-side to this is that there was a push to “Do Something” about Covid, so the FDA approved vaccines that may be useless (or even harmful). Now, they are getting criticized for THAT.
That’s the thankless job of the bureaucrat.
As a crisis negotiator I learned that, for people in crisis situations, emotion and reasoning ability are inversely proportional. One of the key tasks of the negotiator is to manage the situation (keep things from getting worse) and assist in cooling the emotions and allowing time for reasoning ability to increase and, eventually, prevail. If a subject cannot reason effectively, he or she cannot make the decisions that will lead to a successful resolution of the crisis situation (i.e. the suspect goes to jail rather than the morgue, and everybody else goes home in one piece).
“Do something” is an ineffective and often counterproductive emotional reaction to situations deserving of a more valid and reasoned response. During societal emergencies (either real, imagined or manufactured), politicians and others involved are thrown into (or choose) crisis mode, and any actions taken in temporal proximity to the precipitating events are likely to be made acting on emotion rather than reason. Very seldom do decisions based solely or even primarily on emotion turn out to be optimal. At the very least, the unintended consequences of this process often produce serious crises of their own. This situation is exacerbated by people and groups with selfish agendas unrelated to actually solving the crisis, who exert influence on the parties who are strongly emotionally invested in the “do something” mindset. “Allies” not chosen carefully can hinder or even thwart the causes to which they attach themselves.
Politicians and others of influence should learn to manage social crises and keep emotions in check until rational processes can be applied to thoughtfully examine and address the core issues involved. We should always strive to act effectively rather than expediently, but too often expediency driven by emotion carries the day.