Thomas Sowell

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 that nothing is being done to punish a convicted criminal for some of his crimes, since the time he is serving for one crime is being served concurrently with the time served for other crimes.

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

People convicted of burglary in Britain are seldom jailed. For this and many other crimes, they will get a stern talking to. And, 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 it is only a toy gun that is used to "intimidate" a burglar, as they put it.

People who say that 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 have already been tried and 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 often common-- and often gets complicated. On the international stage, the great arena for doing nothing is the United Nations.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate