The Cost of Doing Something

Declaiming the price of "inaction" is a perennial argument for big government and bad law


On the eve of what would be a 219-212 House of Representatives vote in favor of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, the New York Times editorial board argued that whatever the bill's eventual price tag, it sure beat "the costs of doing nothing." Warned the Gray Lady: "By any measure—drought, famine, coastal devastation—the costs of inaction, of clinging to a broken energy policy, will dwarf the costs of acting now."

If that argument sounds familiar, it is. Times columnist Paul Krugman, while declaring those 212 nay votes guilty of "treason against the planet," posited that "we're facing a clear and present danger to our way of life, perhaps even to civilization itself." Therefore, "How can anyone justify failing to act?"

The same logic, minus some of the apocalyptic language, is being used this summer to push through President Barack Obama's other massively expensive overhaul to the way America does business: health care reform. "I can assure you," the president said recently in Green Bay, Wisconsin, "the cost of doing nothing is going to be a lot higher in the years to come. Our deficits will be higher. Our premiums will keep going up. Our wages will be lower. Our jobs will be fewer. Our businesses will suffer." Echoed Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius a week later: "The cost of doing nothing will render us a second rate nation on into the future." Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), in subsequent House hearings, went still further: "There is not one child, not one worker, not one employer, nor one taxpayer who can further bear the cost of doing nothing."

Hyperbole aside, the urge to have the government do something in the face of a perceived crisis is arguably the most powerful and effective legislative engine known to man. If the crisis is acute enough, backers of state intervention will even admit that content matters less than the mere existence of action itself. During the height of last fall's financial panic, for example, New York Mayor and financial journalism titan Michael Bloomberg said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that "Nobody knows exactly what they should do, but anything is better than nothing." As the House of Representatives was passing the stimulus package this February, Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, thundered that "the cost of doing nothing would be catastrophic." Auto bailout? "The cost of doing nothing is cataclysmic," warned Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) last December.

In weighing the pros and cons of a given bill, one way to assess the "do something" argument is to apply analytical rigor where legislators and their enablers insert dystopian adjectives. For instance, instead of taking international trade economist Paul Krugman's word that global warming poses a "clear and present danger" to "civilization itself," you could grapple with the legislative analysis by Reason Science Correspondent (and controversial global warming believer) Ronald Bailey, who has followed the science and policy of this stuff for two decades.

Another way is to look back in history, and see how previous laws passed using this justification have stood the test of time. Here is a highly partial list of four questionable bills rammed through Congress using classic do-something logic. One could easily assemble a much longer tally of perceived crises that weren't actual emergenices, and/or instances when doing something turned out to be worse than doing nothing at all.

Law: Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002
Existential Threat: President George W. Bush: "[T]he Iraqi regime is a threat of unique urgency….[I]t has developed weapons of mass death; it has used them against innocent men, women and children. We know the designs of the Iraqi regime. In defiance of pledges to the U.N., it has stockpiled biological and chemical weapons. It is rebuilding the facilities used to make those weapons….Saddam must disarm, period. If, however, he chooses to do otherwise, if he persists in his defiance, the use of force may become unavoidable." House Speaker Dennis Hastert: "I think the bottom line for all of us here is, we've been through this process, we've been through September 11th. We visited Ground Zero. We've been at the Pentagon the day after. And we don't want that type of tragedy to happen in this country again. And we will do everything in our power to prevent it from happening again."
Promise: "[A]s we saw in the fall of the Taliban, men and women celebrate freedom's arrival….We'll work with other nations to help the Iraqi people form a just government and a unified country. And should force be required, the United States will help rebuild a liberated Iraq."
Results: Saddam was indeed disarmed and dethroned, though he didn't have the weapons he was supposed to disarm. Neither freedom nor unity nor a "just government" arrived quite as advertised, and the rebuilding process continues.
Cost of Doing Something: An estimated 4,322 U.S. military killed and 68,920 wounded; 1,360 U.S. contractors killed, 318 non-U.S. coalition forces killed. An estimated 100,000 or so Iraqis killed, though those numbers are hard to measure and disputed. An estimated 2.8 million Iraqis displaced from their homes. Plus more than $1 trillion spent, and the U.S. military stretched.

Law: The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.
Existential Threat: Allegedly plummeting investor confidence in the wake of recent corporate scandals at Enron, Adelphia, WorldCom, and elsewhere.
Promise: President Bush: "No more easy money for corporate criminals, just hard time….The era of low standards and false profits is over."
Results: Um.
Cost of Doing Something: Created make-work for auditors. Compliance costs affected small actors disproportionately. Companies stopped going public.

Law: The Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002.
Existential Threat: John McCain: "Our political system is confronting today a very serious challenge, as dangerous in its way as war and depression have been in the past. America will need your best efforts to defeat it. The threat that concerns me is the pervasive public cynicism that is debilitating our democracy….When the people come to believe that government is so dysfunctional or corrupt that it no longer serves these ends, basic civil consensus will deteriorate to the point that our culture might fragment beyond recognition….We desperately need to reform a campaign system that lures good people into bad practices; a system that values money far above ideas and integrity; a system that is a stain upon every public official's honor."
Promise: To "break the iron triangle of big money, lobbyists and legislation and take the government out of the hands of the special interests."
Results: Er, not so much.
Cost of Doing Something: Among many other restrictions on political speech, the law put the federal government in the role of censoring political advertisements by organizations unaffiliated with any political party or candidate. Compliance costs affected small actors disproportionately.

Law: The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996
Existential Threat: Terrorism by foreigners (such as the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center) and terrorism by domestics (such as Timothy McVeigh in 1995).
Promise: "[T]o stop terrorists before they strike, and to bring them to justice if they do….[T]o deport terrorists from American soil without being compelled by the terrorists to divulge classified information, and to bar terrorists from entering the United States in the first place."
Results: Terrorists, including foreigners, continued to murder on American soil.
Cost of Doing Something: Introduced the foul modern concept of secret courts that use secret evidence, removed the appeal process for when legal non-citizens tangle with power-crazed border guards, limited appeals for death row inmates.

There are times when doing something with the federal government is the perfectly appropriate or reasonable response to a given challenge. Such is the fodder of constructive public policy discussion. But when a politician or pundit uses scare language about the perils of inaction, that is often an attempt to shut discussion down, and force through something today that many of us will be sorry about for years to come.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason.