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Do no harm

More ruminations inspired by reading Karl Popper

I’ve written before that the first order of a conservative is to do no harm.

Harm often comes from radical innovation, which is why conservatives tend to shun innovation. But I’ve never said that all innovation is bad. Sometimes things in society get broken, and broken things should be fixed. Sometimes things are broken, but we don’t discover the break for years, decades or centuries later. Again, broken things should be fixed.

There are conservatives, of course, who disagree and say that tradition should abide and remain unchanged. Popper, I think, would agree with my contention that such thinking leads to tyranny. That was Plato’s goal, after all — to create a society that would be perfect and unchanging.

But perfection is beyond the human grasp, and a rational person must admit at times that things need fixed.

By way of example, California’s three-strike law is flawed. It can result in prison sentences far harsher than legitimately necessary, which is an unequal application of justice. But should tradition dictate that this law, which was probably too radical of an innovation to begin with, be preserved? I think not. It needs to be reformed.

But reform should never be so drastic that it leads to unintended harmful consequences.

The conservative, then, should strive to strike a balance between the need to reform and the very human impulse to go too far with innovation.

That desire for radical innovation, of course, stems from the charitable impulse all sane people have to improve the lot of our fellow citizens. When we see something wrong, we want to fix it. Now. Completely. We think if we do, we will make the aggrieved happy and the downtrodden uplifted. But the problem with this thinking is that no person has the power to make another person happy.

We can buy our loved one flowers, but if the loved one is in a bad spot mentally, the flowers may not have the desired effect. The person receiving the gift must be of a mind to cherish the gift, and that is entirely an individual decision.

In the same way, there is no amount of money the government can throw at welfare mothers, or homeless families or poverty stricken hillbillies and make them happy. Some recipients of such largesse might, indeed, become happy, but they will not have been made happy; they will remain free to choose bitterness or anger instead.

If we cannot make other people happy, what then are we left to do? How about, we do what we can to ensure that we do not make people unhappy. Again, do no harm.

The government certainly has the power to make people unhappy. It can unjustly jail people, torture people, burden them with unfair taxes, confiscate property, murder and pillage and lay waste, or simply deny equal rights to all citizens.

Wouldn’t it be true then, that the preferable government would be one that instead of wasting time, money and effort trying to make people happy, it rather spent its energies trying to ensure it didn’t make people unhappy? That it didn’t burden the people with too many regulations, or prevent people from enjoying the fruits of their labor, or denying them access to information, or failing to provide them police and fire protection and adequate roadways? Isn’t it better for a government to make possible the pursuit of happiness to the greatest number of people, and kept the barriers to that pursuit at a bear minimum?

If that is the case, how does the government go about fixing problems — because any change may have unintended consequences that make some people unhappy?

How about making those changes in the smallest units possible? Rather than dictating an educational reform plan that applies to all the schools in the nation, how about letting each individual school district come up with its own reform plan and then promoting as a good idea the ones that work? In this way you minimize the damage of bad plans, but still give good plans a chance to flourish.

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