The importance of doing…nothing

David Pietrusza’s excellent compendium, Silent Cal’s Almanack, serves up two versions of one statement that is associated with Calvin Coolidge, one that is at once typical of his philosophy and in stark contrast with prevailing current practice:

“Never go out of your way to meet trouble. If you will just keep still, nine cases out of ten, someone will intercept it before it reaches you.”

“Don’t you know four-fifths of all our troubles in this life would disappear if we would only sit down and keep still.”

To me, this philosophy, accepting and almost Zen-like in its stoicism, would behoove us well today, especially as applied to the political sphere. But between a public constantly clamoring for government to take care of this or that problem, and politicians all too willing to oblige and meddle in whatever problem is coming down the pike, we are in a vicious circle of frantic activism. Never mind that most of the time, no one really knows what results the hectic actions will bring. Science is coming around to the fact that unintended consequences are often worse than the remedies to perceived problems. The fact of the matter is that in a very complex and interdependent world, you simply cannot forecast every last consequence an action will have. Worse, the pervasive social media of today enable uninformed and biased people to quickly rally masses to their cause, global warming being a point in case – no one knows whether the remedies debated and demanded here are not likely to do a lot more damage to the world’s economies, and therefore to humanity, than they will any good. Coolidge was right rather to err on the side of inaction, and we can safely assume that he would have applied this philosophy to the Great Depression, had he been in office then.

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