Comment Of The Day: “The Trouble With ‘Do Something!’ Part II”

Saturday is a ghost town on Ethics Alarms these days; I’ve decided to stop obsessing about it, and blog traffic generally, other than with occasional rueful observations like this one. Despite the lack of quantity, Saturday often produces a disproportionate level of high quality commentary and Comments of the Day, such as JutGory‘s observations on the “Do something!” conundrum. I was particularly charmed by his preface, which represented a microcosm of the eternal “Do something” vs “Do nothing” conflict:

“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.”

Here is JutGory’s Comment of the Day on the post, “The Trouble With “Do Something!” Part II: Applying The Scale.”


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.

Nazis too.

Freedom Riders.

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.

3 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “The Trouble With ‘Do Something!’ Part II”

  1. People can waffle about, as it seems to me that JutGory wrote about, and sit on the damn fence all they want and live by the concept that no one can argue with a barking dog, you can’t appeal to reason where there is none, but I can’t do that and quite frankly that’s exactly how our culture got in this absurd predicament. I choose to walk up to the face of the ignorance barking dog and figuratively drive them to sit.

    Status quo is where the entire 21st century culture war is rooted. Yes there has always been a relatively low levels of cultural conflict going on in the USA, it’s the nature of our political system; however, culture war is exactly what’s happening right now, and in my opinion, denying that it exists is delusional a.k.a. characterized by or holding false beliefs or judgments about external reality that is held despite incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.

    Here is how I see it.

    On one side we have people, like me, that want to maintain the status quo of our Constitutional Republic, the Constitution, the rule of law, liberty, freedom and all of the relative civil norms of our culture, basically all the foundational things that have made and support the USA for over 200 years. On the other side we have a cult like faction of irrational people that want to undermine and destroy all of the status quo foundational things that have made the USA what it is and veer off into some kind of delusional utopia that’s built upon the absolutely intolerant and uncivil social justice woke movements hive-minded mob, if you disagree with the hive-minded mob you’re wrong and evil – it’s that simple.

    What’s happening in the USA is absolutely ABSURD!!!

    Stand up for the status quo or the status quo will be lost.

  2. Even better after the second reading.

    I can also appreciate Steve’s point about facing things head on.

    Well done

  3. It always irks me to end hearing people heaping praise on FDR, and counting him as one of our greatest presidents. I happen to think that he and LBJ are the two worst presidents we have ever had because both have had a huge part in planting the seeds for our ultimate collapse, FDR for his labor policies (esp. pro-union ones), his government policies (big and highly centralized/federalized government), and for setting the precedence for open warfare against SCOTUS; and LBJ with his social/racial policies (incl. affirmative actions) that have resulted in the tribalized, identitarian, and racialized anti-meritocratic society we now have.

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