Negative Achievements in Politics

John Adams, Master of Inaction
John Adams, Master of Inaction
In recent years, the British economy has been the jobs engine of Europe, enjoying falling unemployment, rising wages and good growth. No doubt many politicians will claim credit based on what they did, but I wonder if any credit will go to someone who helped by not doing something.

I speak of Gordon Brown, who refused Tony Blair’s wishes to join the Euro. No matter what British politicians had done since, it’s hard to see how Britain would currently have half the Eurozone’s unemployment rate if Blair had prevailed. By declining to take action on the Euro, Brown aided his country to a greater extent than he did with many of the policies he actually implemented.

But we don’t generally credit politicians for things they didn’t do, even when their inactions had more benefits than their actions. How many people when listing the achievements of President John Adams would for example mention his not launching a full-scale war with France over the XYZ affair? Yet he might have saved our nascent republic in the not doing so.

It’s not cognitively easy for voters to deal with counter-factuals, and the hero’s narrative that the media loves only works when the hero changed history through some great deed rather than standing pat. That’s probably a bad set of incentives for legacy-hungry politicians because sometimes the advice from the theater holds: Don’t just do something, stand there.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.