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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.