By Dave Kopel & David C. Stolinsky. More by Kopel on the American Founding Era.
National Review Online, 1/24/01 10:00 a.m.
Mr. Kopel is the research director of the Independence Institute. Dr. Stolinsky is retired from medical-school teaching. He writes on political and social topics from Los Angeles
In 1799 George Washington went riding in the rain and fell ill. Physicians were summoned and bled him, but his condition worsened. Did they conclude that bleeding was harmful and try another treatment? Did they at least conclude that bleeding was ineffective and stop it? No, the doctors concluded that they had not bled him enough and bled him repeatedly until he died. He was 67.
Medical scholars today debate whether the bloodletting directly killed Washington, or indirectly killed him by preventing a search for a genuinely effective treatment. In general, bloodletting was usually harmful, yet it persisted for centuries. Effective treatments for most diseases did not exist, but this does not explain why harmless remedies — honey, for example — were not used. Instead, countless patients were weakened or killed by removal of blood, which commonsense tells us is essential for life. Perhaps there is a lesson here. Once we accept something as "good," we often persist in doing it even when the result is clearly bad, while telling ourselves that we just haven't done enough of it.
We are subject to a defect of reason that inhibits us from (1) seeking the real causes of problems, and (2) detecting or feeling responsible for any harmful results of our actions. There are many examples:
When we have a problem in everyday life, we try a possible solution. If it doesn't work, we try another — at least if we're not dysfunctional. Yet this logical approach often eludes us when we confront societal problems. Medicine has embraced the scientific method; doctors no longer bleed patients to death. But our approach to many societal problems are as illogical and dangerous and bloodletting. Are we not treating the problems of violent crime and teen pregnancy with increasing doses of ineffective remedies? The question is: What evidence would convince enthusiasts that their approach is ineffective, or possibly harmful? In the case of gun-control laws or sex education, the answer is "none."
The advocates of these policies believe in them as a priori goods. Whether these goods actually yield any social benefits appears to be irrelevant. Less guns and more children talking about sex are seen as good in themselves.
The same is true in other areas. Reading skills have been falling for three decades; does this cause us to abandon whole-word reading and return to the phonics method? When SAT scores fall steadily, do we reevaluate teaching methods? No, we "re-norm" the SAT to conceal the fall.
"Bilingual" education produces many college entrants who have mastered neither English nor another language. It would be better called "no-lingual." So do we reinstitute immersion in English, which succeeded with past generations of immigrants?
"Multiculturalism" is a code word for putting students in racially segregated dormitories, trashing Western culture, and promoting ignorance of cultures other than one's own. But few dare to object to this racist policy, for fear of being called "racist" by the Orwellian racists of political correctness.
Do the pro-government environmentalists lobbyists consider the possibility that their proposals might have harmful effects? Do welfare advocates hesitate when they are told that their policies may have accelerated the breakup of the family? Do judges monitor the effect on children when they take them from loving adoptive homes and place them with biologic "fathers" who never cared for them? Do proponents of euthanasia realize that in the Netherlands, which they hold up as a model, over 1,000 patients annually are "euthanized" without their consent (a/k/a murdered)? No, the advocates believe that they have good intentions, and are therefore absolved of all responsibility for foreseeing, preventing, monitoring, or remedying the negative effects of their actions. That is, they believe that only motives matter, not results.
An idea that cannot be disproved by any evidence is an irrational belief, not a logical conclusion. One who believes that he is right despite the evidence, and that being right absolves him of any responsibility for the harmful effects of his actions, is an irrational and potentially dangerous person. The "Father of his Country" may have been killed by such persons. Other such people may be equally dangerous to the country itself.