Don't Just Do Something

Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? Who knows? Do something!


"I don't know what the answer is," Kacey Musgraves shouted during her set at Lollapalooza on August 7, "but obviously something has to be fucking done." The country music star then led her fans in a chant that perfectly encapsulates the future of American politics: "Somebody fucking do something!" she screamed. "Somebody fucking do something!" the crowd screamed back.

Musgraves was, understandably, upset about the horrific back-to-back mass murders that took place the first weekend of August in El Paso and Dayton. She did not offer a specific something to be done. This may have been an attempt to appear nonpartisan, it may have been honest uncertainty, or it may just have been a sensible intuition that the middle of a music festival was not the right place to workshop public policy.

But the something matters an awful lot. In this case—and in so many others—"do something" actually means "do something to other people." It means "force other people to do something they don't want to do, even if you're not sure it will actually help." The call to "do something" privileges action over analysis and mandatory one-size-fits-all solutions over incremental, local, and voluntary action.

The list of somethings to be done post-shooting is familiar enough: Stop the sale (or possibly possession) of certain firearms, make ever-larger lists of people who are not allowed to own firearms at all, and regulate speech—especially "hate speech," especially online, and maybe video games while we're at it. As Reason's Brian Doherty and Jacob Sullum have chronicled, there are good reasons to think these proposals will impose widespread harmful unintended consequences while being ineffective at reducing gun deaths. But in politics, that doesn't seem to count for much. Especially not when a bunch of politicians are in way over their heads, grappling with a highly flammable mix of genuinely troubling problems involving violence, racial hatred, inadequate health care, and terror.

"If we truly care about this," said President Barack Obama after a 2015 mass shooting in Colorado Springs, "if we're going to offer up our thoughts and prayers again, for God knows how many times, with a truly clean conscience, then we have to do something."

President Donald Trump has jumped onto the same bandwagon. Speaking to the press on the White House lawn before he departed to visit with victims of the August shootings, he too said he was prepared to "do something" about "any group of hate."

Earlier in the week, Trump suggested he might accede to restrictions on gun ownership in exchange for immigration reforms from congressional Democrats. It will be the ultimate irony if the last several decades of political and cultural warfare over gun policy end with a GOP president signing the first truly sweeping gun control bill since the '90s. (The relatively quick and electorally painless decision to implement a bump stock ban after the 2017 Las Vegas shooting suggests that Trump has the willingness and perhaps even the clout to get it done if he wishes to do so.)

If, after decades of speechmaking about hunting and tradition and rights, Republicans roll over because they happen to have someone in the White House who doesn't actually care much about those things, it'll be the most perfect encapsulation of the party's ideological hollowness since George W. Bush pushed through a massive health care entitlement, Medicare Part D.

The notion that the correct response to comparatively rare mass shootings is to rescind the constitutional rights of tens of millions of people who have sought mental health treatment has a particularly strong allure for the bipartisan "do something" crowd, perhaps because it perfectly fits the "do something to someone else" mold.

The proposed restrictions on online speech are in many ways the most worrisome. The desire to hold big tech accountable for mass shootings is politically potent: Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter have already made plenty of enemies, and doing this particular something would be a great way to satisfy quite a few constituencies that are baying for their blood. (For more on that, see page 20.)

The rise of the free internet has coincided with the greatest sustained arc of increasing peace and prosperity in human history. But the forces for doing something are strong, so in the days after the shootings, everyone from Fox's Tucker Carlson to The New York Times called for restrictions on online speech and other regulations of the internet.

Guns aren't the only place where the do something dynamic dominates. In each case, the problems are very real, but their roots or scale may have been misunderstood, and the proposed somethings are blunt and ill-considered.

The problem of man-made climate change is real, for instance, but the proposed policy solutions grow ever more dramatic and potentially destructive even as the calls for action grow louder and less specific.

Same with foreign interventionism. We look abroad, see atrocities, and think, "Surely we should do something." In her memoirs, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright remembered asking her colleague Colin Powell, "What's the point of you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can't use it?" Many foreign policy decision makers share her attitude. Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? Who knows? Do something! Probably something involving words first, but all too often those words become counterproductive economic sanctions, and soon there are bombs falling from the skies.

Likewise with bailouts of big business and stimulus packages and a half-dozen other big-ticket outlays that have pushed us past the point of fiscal sanity.

When there's no clear policy to push, there's a fallback something that's available to (almost) every citizen: When things are bad, we can at least repeatedly remind each other to vote, thereby electing different politicians who can't quite figure out which things to do or how to do them.

And if our newly elected legislators finally do something, will it be the thing you thought you were electing them to do? Probably not. This is the dirty secret of do something campaigns: They are dangerously unstable. They rapidly decay, first into awareness-raising efforts and other largely symbolic acts and from there into nothing.

But the opposite of do something isn't do nothing. It's let people work things out among themselves.

Consider Mr. Rogers' advice for tough times. "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news," America's favorite cardigan swapper would say, "my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'" This was meant as advice for parents worried about managing the anxiety of young children who were powerless in the face of horror. But it's also good advice for anxious adults, who are often similarly ill-equipped to select the right course of action and impose it on everyone via the political process.

Give people a chance to think and talk and work and innovate to solve problems rather than bludgeoning them with public policy. Even problems that are traditionally considered part of the realm of government can be ameliorated in non-political ways. A 2018 New York University study, for instance, found that in small cities, the creation of a new nonprofit community organization leads to a 1.2 percent drop in the homicide rate and a 1 percent reduction in the violent crime rate.

Don't scream for unspecified action from politicians. Look for the helpers. Be a helper. Don't just do something.