The Philosophy of Doing Nothing

There is much to be said for doing nothing.  Pascal remarked that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”  And when you absolutely have to do something, the next best thing is to put it off.  Procrastination, which involves doing nothing as long as possible, is often thought of as a vice. Benjamin Franklin said, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” but I say, if you put something off until tomorrow, you might not have to do it at all.  A lot of problems just take care of themselves.

As I have done nothing as much as possible all my life, I could give many examples of how procrastination paid off, but I shall simply relate my favorite.  I was at the Longhorn Saloon one night, when I saw Kathy, whom I recognized from the dance studio where we both took lessons, and so I asked her to dance.  While we were two-stepping around the floor, she asked me if I had made any plans for the rodeo.  (In Houston, “the rodeo” refers to a three-week period from late February through March, in which there are rodeo events and musical entertainment.)  Now, there were two possibilities:  either she was just making small talk, or she was flirting, hoping I would ask her out. I had never given any thought to dating Kathy, but I was not averse to the idea either.  In other words, if she was flirting, I wanted to take advantage of it and ask her out.  I do not care for rodeos, for I think they are boring, but such are the things we do for love.  Still, there was the possibility that her question was just idle conversation, and that she had no interest in me romantically speaking.

Ah, if only I had done nothing.  We would have had our dance while briefly discussing the rodeo, and then gone our separate ways.  Instead, I decided the situation called for bold, decisive action, and so I said, “Well, I haven’t made any plans, but now that you mention it, would you like to go to the rodeo with me?”  She said she would.  As this was only early February, we had plenty of time to decide which show we would go see (there are different bands on different nights), so we agreed to discuss the matter again that Friday, when we would have our weekly lesson at the studio.

That night, I woke up in a cold sweat.  I realized I had made a big mistake.  I always believe in asking a woman out in such a way that it is easy for her to say “No,” if she wants to. Therefore, I typically will ask a woman out on, say, Wednesday for a date on Saturday.  This is far enough in advance not to be considered “at the last minute,” but close enough so that she can beg off by saying she already has plans.  Instead, I had asked Kathy out weeks in advance for a date on an indeterminate night in a three-week period.  In other words, I had inadvertently asked her out in such a way that she could not possibly say “No” without hurting my feelings.  Worse yet, I had violated another rule of dating:  on a first date, keep it short and keep it simple. Going to a rodeo, on the other hand, is a complicated date, which typically starts in the late afternoon and lasts well into the night.  It also did not help that there was no real enthusiasm in Kathy’s voice when she accepted the date.

Therefore, I needed to get out of it somehow.  But how?  For the same reason that she could not say “No,” I could not break the date.  How do you say, “Something has come up,” when talking about a three-week period several weeks away?  Finally, around two in the morning, I decided I would tell her that some friends were coming to visit me in March, and so I had better not make any other plans, such as going to the rodeo with her.  The problem having been solved, I turned over and immediately went to sleep.

But when I awoke the next morning, I was no longer so sure.  If I was going to break the date, I knew I should call her right away.  The sooner I got it over with the better. “Never put off until tomorrow ….”  But put it off I did.  And I kept putting it off until by the time Friday rolled around, I knew I could not do it.  The excuse was too lame, too unbelievable.  A bunch of friends visiting me for three weeks indeed!  I realized that there was only one proper thing for me to do, and that was to see it through, right to the very end.  We would go to the rodeo and make the best of it, and then I would resolve never to get myself into such a situation again.

When I arrived at the studio, there she was.  I knew we needed to discuss which night we were going to go to the rodeo, but I could not bring myself to broach the subject.  When the lessons were over, we both stayed for practice.  I asked her to dance, and once again we were two-stepping around the floor, neither of us saying anything.  When it was over, we walked toward the perimeter.  It was as good a time as any to discuss the rodeo, but still I said nothing.

Suddenly, she turned around and said, “Oh John.  About the rodeo.  I have some friends coming to visit me in March, and so I won’t be able to go.”

With some effort, I managed to express just a touch of disappointment, saying, “That’s all right, Kathy.  Maybe we’ll do something else some other time.”

And thus it was that doing nothing solved the problem that my failure to do nothing had gotten me into.

Given my view that there is much wisdom in doing nothing, you might think I would be a Republican, for doing nothing is a recurring theme in conservative thought. Edmund Burke is sometimes said to be the father of modern conservatism, and his book, Reflections on the Revolution in France, is regarded as the best expression of his views.  And what views they are! He admits that there might be special circumstances under which democracy is appropriate, but mostly it is a scourge.  He lays down three so-called rights that the British people do not have and do not want. First, they do not want the right to choose their own governors. Inherited succession determines who the next monarch will be, and there is nothing the British people can legally do about it, and that is the way it should be.  The second right the British people do not wish to have is that of cashiering their governors for misconduct.  If a king misbehaves outrageously, there is nothing that can legally be done about it. Even if he is a bad king, he still gets to reign for life, and that is the way it should be. Finally, the British people do not want the right to frame their own government. The type of government they have is the one they are stuck with, like it or not, and that is the way it should be.

At the time this was written, the Americans had violated all three of these principles, framing their own government by writing the Constitution, which provided for the election of a president, along with the procedure to be followed for his impeachment, should he commit high crimes and misdemeanors.  And the Constitution even laid out the procedure for writing a new Constitution should the people decide they want one.  But Burke is silent about America in this book, preferring to concentrate on the French Revolution, probably because it made an easy target, whereas the Americans were violating these Burkean principles with no ill effects.

Of course, when Burke speaks of what the British people want, this was at a time when only ten percent of the male population had the vote, but he is confident that those few speak for the rest of the men and all of the women. Consequently, we see that the recent efforts on the part of Republicans to disenfranchise some of the electorate with Voter ID laws has a venerable tradition in Burke’s horror at the idea of letting the mob have a say in their government.

In all fairness, Burke argues that conservatism is relative rather than absolute. In other words, the point is that whatever government a nation has, that is the one to stick with as much as possible, because change is dangerous. Avoiding change is a form of doing nothing, and when that is not possible, the next best thing is to keep change to a minimum.

Also written in the eighteenth century is Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, in which it is argued that a government with good intentions cannot produce effects as beneficent as that of a free market, in which people act in their self-interest, as if guided by an invisible hand.  In other words, when it comes to economics, we are better off when the government does nothing (except for protecting private property and keeping the rabble in their place).

Conservatives also tend to be religious, and Burke was adamant about the need for religion to restrain man, an attitude still in existence today. However, when it comes to doing nothing rather than something, Christianity does not speak with one voice. There are those who believe so fully in God’s providence that there is little for man to do, except for avoiding sin, which is a form of doing nothing right there.  This is especially the case when it is thought that the end is near.  Climate change and environmental degradation will not matter much if the Second Coming is imminent. On the other hand, there are many Republicans, like George W. Bush, who believe in a faith-based foreign policy.  A lot of them seem to think that the prophecies in The Bible require something about the Jews returning to Palestine and a few other things happening over in the Middle East that apparently God cannot get done on his own, and thus we need a foreign policy that will help him out. There is a libertarian wing of the party that is opposed to American adventurism, and would prefer a more isolationist approach, a form of doing nothing internationally, but they are unfortunately in the minority.  Still, there is that fatalistic element in Christianity that counsels doing nothing, and it dovetails nicely with the political philosophy of Edmund Burke and the economic theory of Adam Smith.

The president who thoroughly embodied the philosophy of doing nothing was Calvin Coolidge, about whom Will Rogers said, “He didn’t do anything, but that’s what we wanted done.”  And more than a few have noticed an affinity between Coolidge’s style of governing and the Tea Party.  Conservatives are sometimes criticized for not having an alternative to certain programs favored by liberals, most recently regarding the Affordable Care Act.  But what needs to be understood is that the true conservative alternative is to do nothing, to let the unregulated free market produce the best of all possible worlds.  And when Congress is criticized for doing so little, for passing very few bills into law, it needs to be understood that for a true conservative, minimal activity is not a vice, but a virtue.  Therefore, when we criticize the Republicans for doing nothing, we should not be surprised if our words lack persuasive force, because doing nothing is their ideal, a form of governing in which they take much pride.

And yet, though my natural sympathies lie with doing nothing, I remain a liberal, inasmuch as I realize that doing something sometimes pays off.  For instance, there was that time that another woman asked me if I knew a good place to go ballroom dancing.  As before, I assumed she was hinting, and, as in the previous case, I asked her out.  One thing led to another, and the next thing you know, we did something rather than nothing, so it definitely has its advantages.

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