Sometimes the Only Thing to Do is Nothing

by | Dec 8, 2015


When libertarians (or simply people with common sense) argue against proposals to solve a certain class of perceived problems (e.g., mass murders by odd-ball lunatics or crazed zealots) by imposing more stringent government controls, closer surveillance, and so forth, the proponents often reply: well, if you don’t think my idea for government action will work, what do you propose instead to solve the problem? They are never happy when told that a better idea is to do nothing to solve it.

Yet, in truth, problems of a certain sort (e.g.,mass murders by odd-ball lunatics or crazed zealots) do not have a solution in anything even close to a free society. These types of problems involve such unsystematic, infrequent, and inexplicable actions that no one can anticipate and preempt them. Lightning will strike people sometimes; nothing can be done about it except to advise people to stay inside during thunderstorms and in no event to go outside carrying an iron rod.

So, one might propose, for example, that the U.S. government stop blundering around in the Middle East carrying the “iron rods” that will attract the lightning of aggrieved Muslims whose friends, relatives, or causes have been harmed or killed by American actions. Absent such general palliatives, one must simply resign himself to the reality that occasionally — albeit very, very infrequently — bad things will happen. Even locking every human being in a cell will not solve such problems, either, because bad things happen in prisons, too. Indeed, nearly everything that happens in a prison or an un-free society is bad.

Reprinted with author’s permission.


  • Robert Higgs

    Robert Higgs is Retired Senior Fellow in Political Economy, Founding Editor and former Editor at Large of the Independent Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review: A Journal of Political Economy. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, the University of Economics, Prague, and George Mason University.