In 1799 George Washington went riding in the rain and fell ill. Physicians were summoned and bled him, but his condition worsened. Did they conclude that bleeding was harmful and try another treatment? Did they at least conclude that bleeding was ineffective and stop it? No, the doctors concluded that they had not bled him enough, so they bled him repeatedly, taking perhaps three pints, until he died. He was 67.
Bloodletting was usually harmful, yet it persisted for centuries. Effective treatments for most diseases did not exist. But this does not explain why harmless remedies − honey, for example − were not used. Instead, countless patients were weakened or killed by removal of blood, which both the Bible and common sense tell us is essential for life.
There is a lesson here. Once we accept something as “good,” we often persist in doing it, even when the result is clearly bad − while telling ourselves that we just haven’t done enough of it.
We are subject to a defect of reason that inhibits us from (1) seeking the real causes of problems, and (2) detecting or feeling responsible for any harmful results of our actions:
● The government bailed out the financial institutions. This was arguably necessary. Then monstrous sums were spent to bail out auto manufacturers and others. Yet unemployment continues high, and there is little evidence that the “stimulus” stimulated anything but debt. Thus $985 million to New Hampshire produced 845 jobs, while $527 million to Solyndra produced no jobs at all. But instead of recognizing the error and trying something else, some people are demanding another “stimulus.” That is, do more of what hasn’t worked.
● The government bullied financial institutions into making home loans to people unlikely to be able to repay them. The resulting insolvency of these institutions was probably the cause of the economic collapse. But instead of recognizing the error and avoiding a repetition, Barney Frank and other advocates of the program now urge that we expand it. That is, do more of what caused serious damage.
● The government under Reagan lowered tax rates and found that the economy boomed, so tax receipts actually rose. People produce more when they receive greater rewards. Conversely, when governments raised tax rates, the economy stagnated and tax receipts fell. People produce less when they are punished for being productive. But instead of recognizing these facts, President Obama demands higher tax rates to fund health care and other projects. That is, do what brought in less revenue, but claim it will bring in more.
● The government provides good health care for the elderly with Medicare, and mediocre care for the needy with Medicaid. Both Medicare and Medicaid are approaching insolvency. But instead of dealing with this problem, proponents of single-payer health care insist that the government could provide high-quality care for everyone − including a flood of new immigrants − at less cost. That is, do more of what is going broke, and claim this will save money.
● The government required the addition of MTBE to gasoline to “help the environment.” But this toxic chemical and suspected carcinogen seeped into the water supply. The oil companies were blamed. Those who caused the problem − legislators and big-government environmentalists − escaped blame. Now these people are requiring the use of compact fluorescent bulbs, which contain toxic mercury. Of course, light-bulb manufacturers, not environmentalists, will be blamed for the toxic effects when these fragile bulbs inevitably break in homes, schools, restaurants, and food stores. That is, do more of what caused environmental damage, and claim it is “green.”
● The government, both federal and state, had few gun-control laws in 1900. New York’s handgun licensing and California’s waiting period had not yet been enacted. Guns of all types could be bought anonymously or ordered by mail. Yet the homicide rate was roughly one-fourth of the current rate. But this doesn’t weaken enthusiasts’ belief in gun-control laws or cause them to look elsewhere for causes of violence. And watching “Braveheart” doesn’t shake their belief that a gun-free world would be nonviolent. That is, do more of what was associated with things getting worse, and claim this will make things better.
When we have a problem in everyday life, we try a possible solution. If it doesn’t work, we try another. Yet this logical approach often eludes us when we confront societal problems. Medicine has embraced the scientific method – doctors no longer bleed patients to death. But our approach to many societal problems is equally illogical and dangerous.
Are we not treating the problems of economic decline and environmental pollution with increasing doses of ineffective remedies? The question is this: What would convince enthusiasts that their approach is ineffective, or even harmful? Often the answer is nothing.
Enthusiasts believe their programs are intrinsically good. Whether these programs actually yield positive results seems irrelevant. Fewer guns, higher taxes, and more government control of everything − from toilets and light bulbs to banking to housing to auto manufacturing to energy production to health care − are seen as good in themselves, regardless of whether they actually work.
Bilingual education produces many graduates who have mastered neither English nor another language. Do we reinstitute immersion in English, which succeeded with past generations of immigrants and is used in expensive language schools? No, we pay schools extra money for students who have not mastered English, instead of for those who have.
As a result, many students are kept in bilingual classes through their senior year of high school. In some cases, students are put in bilingual classes even if they are fluent speakers of English. In other cases, Vietnamese immigrants are put in bilingual Spanish classes − anything to postpone English proficiency and keep the extra money.
Do advocates of socialism recognize that it hasn’t worked, from the Plymouth Colony in 1620 to the Soviet Union in our own time?
Do advocates of massive government spending to “stimulate” the economy recognize that it didn’t work to alleviate the Great Depression?
Do environmentalists consider the possibility that their proposals might have harmful effects?
Do welfare advocates hesitate when they are told that their policies may be accelerating the breakup of the family?
Do proponents of euthanasia realize that in the Netherlands, which they hold up as a model, over 1000 patients annually are “euthanized” without their consent?
No, the enthusiasts believe that they have good intentions, and therefore they are absolved of all responsibility for foreseeing, preventing, monitoring, or remedying the negative effects of their actions.
An idea that cannot be disproved by any evidence is an irrational belief, not a logical conclusion. One who believes that he is right despite the evidence, and that being right absolves him of any responsibility for the harmful effects of his actions, is an irrational and potentially dangerous person. One who persists in doing what hasn’t helped, and may well have harmed, is a clearly dangerous person.
The Father of his Country may have been killed by such persons. Similar persons may be equally dangerous to the country itself. If bleeding can weaken or kill a human being, why would we expect bleeding an economy − or a nation − to have a different effect?
Even 6 feet 3½ inch George Washington was not strong enough to withstand repeated bloodletting, especially when he was already weakened by illness. Even rich and powerful America is not strong enough to withstand repeated bloodletting, especially when it is already weakened by economic malfeasance and political incompetence. Let us stop the bleeding before it is too late.
Dr. Stolinsky writes on political and social issues. Contact: email@example.com. You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.