- - Saturday, June 13, 2009



Doing nothing might seem to be simple and easy. But there are many varieties of nothing, and some kinds of nothing can get very elaborate and complex.

In courts of law, for example, “concurrent sentences” mean nothing is being done to punish a convicted criminal for some of his crimes because the time he is serving for one crime is being served concurrently with the time served for other crimes.

A study in Britain found that among criminals caught, convicted and sentenced, just 7 percent of the sentences involved being put behind bars. Most of what is done in the other 93 percent of the cases amounts to nothing.

People convicted of burglary in Britain are seldom jailed. For this and many other crimes, they get a stern talking-to. If they do it again, they will get an even sterner talking-to.

The idea is that burglary is “only” a property crime, and the left intelligentsia in Britain show their disdain for property rights by not taking property crimes very seriously. The net result is that burglary is far more common in Britain than in the United States.

Moreover, burglars in Britain seldom bother to “case” the place, as most American burglars do, before breaking in. Even if someone is home, that is far less of a danger in Britain, where severe gun-control laws greatly reduce the dangers to burglars.

A British homeowner who held two burglars at gunpoint until the police arrived was arrested - even though the gun he used turned out to be just a realistic-looking toy gun. The British intelligentsia take guns much more seriously than they take burglary, even when the gun used to “intimidate” a burglar, as they put it, is just a toy.

People who say we should learn from other countries seem to have in mind that we should imitate those countries. But some of the most valuable lessons from other countries can be had from seeing the disasters their policies have produced - especially when our own intelligentsia are pushing ideas that already have been tried and have failed elsewhere.

We need to pay attention to these sneak previews of coming attractions even if they consist of doing nothing. Whether in the United States or in other countries, the purpose of all this nothing is, of course, to pacify public opinion by pretending to be doing something.

The criminal justice system is not the only arena in which doing nothing is common - and often gets complicated. On the international stage, the great arena for doing nothing is the United Nations.

We have, for example, been doing nothing to stop Iran from getting nuclear bombs, but it has been elaborate, multifaceted and complexly nuanced nothing.

Had there been no United Nations, it would have been obvious to all and sundry that we were doing nothing - and that could have had dire political consequences at election time.

However, thanks to the United Nations, there is a place where political leaders can go to do nothing, with a flurry of highly visible activity - and the media will cover it in detail, with a straight face, so that people will think something is actually being done.

There may be televised statements and counterstatements - passionate debate among people wearing exotic apparel from different nations, all in an impressive, photogenic setting. U.N. resolutions may be voted upon and published to the world. It can be some of the best nothing that money can buy.

Even when United Nations resolutions contain lofty and ringing phrases about the “concerns” of “the international community” or invoke “world opinion” - or perhaps even warn of “grave consequences” - none of this is likely to lead any country to do anything that it would not have done otherwise.

Iran, for example, has for years ignored repeated U.N. resolutions and warnings against building nuclear facilities that can produce bombs. There is not the slightest reason to believe it will stop unless it gets stopped.

Certainly doing nothing will not stop it - not even elaborate diplomatic nothing or even presidential international speechmaking nothing.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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