The scourge of the “something must be done” culture

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Few can doubt that this year’s budget was an explosive one. Although most of the headlines concerned the proposals for a cut in disability benefits (which have now since been ring-fenced in the fallout), a new tax was announced which got the whole country talking: the sugar tax.

Although fiercely opposed in certain quarters, the tax appears to have the support of the majority of the public. What is interesting about this support is that much of it appears to be based on little more than the idea that “something must be done”. Indeed, a quick Google search reveals that it is a common justification for the sugar tax, sometimes word for word.

It is curious that when pressed, many advocates of the tax simply respond that we must do something about childhood obesity as if that in itself is justification for a regressive tax that won’t work. This is known as the “politician’s syllogism” – we must do something, this is something, therefore we must do this.

The sugar tax and its seemingly widespread acceptance by the public is symptomatic of a much bigger issue however: a culture of knee-jerk reactions and virtue signalling whereby being seen to be tackling a problem is more important than actually tackling it. Often, this can lead to poor policy-making outcomes and the sugar tax is a prime example.

Another example is the proposed crackdown on laser pointers in response to incidents where they have been shone into the cockpits of low-flying planes. Like childhood obesity, this is indeed a serious problem but the proposed solution is unlikely to be of much help, particularly when high-powered laser pointers can easily be smuggled in from abroad. New taxes and banning things are easy responses but very rarely are they effective solutions.

Sometimes, this kind of approach can have tragic consequences. Germany’s decision to throw open its borders to migrants last year (before later tightening controls) for example only encouraged more people to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean which in turn played into the hands of people traffickers. Closer to home, scores of left-wing politicians and celebrities have been loudly proclaiming “refugees welcome” and scolding the government for not taking in enough people yet they are seemingly oblivious to the consequences of open borders. For what it’s worth, the Government’s policy of taking people directly from camps near Syria is a smart, well thought-out policy which discourages people traffickers and allows the flow of refugees to be effectively managed. In an age where being seen to be doing the right thing is often deemed more important than actually doing the right thing, this is a welcome outcome.

The implications of a growing “something must be done” culture are potentially dire. Not only does it lead to ineffective, often harmful policy outcomes but it also gives the government more freedom to act without scrutiny. Ham-fisted solutions become accepted because after all, we must do something. Going forward, it is vitally important that in response to crises and problems it is level heads that prevail, although this is easier said than done. It is unfortunately a part of human nature to grasp the easy solution at the first opportunity but rarely are the easy solutions the correct ones.


Ben Harris is an I’m an international relations postgraduate from the University of Kent. Follow him on Twitter:  @btharris93

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty