My last post was about the danger of the “Something must be done” mentality.
But experience shows that it is when governments get involved, and think that it is up to them to do whatever it is that must be done, that we should be scared. Why? Because when governments plan great schemes, the result is often exactly the opposite of what we were promised.
In fact, it seems that the last few weeks have shown us more examples than usual of government schemes that have failed miserably.
The War on Fat
Let’s start with the great story about the Wee Dairy in the Isle of Gigha. The island’s primary school was not allowed to use the milk produced by the local dairy, but instead, had to bring milk in from far away – and all because the Wee Dairy’s milk was whole milk instead of semi-skimmed.
A government spokesman said:
“Semi skimmed milk is proven to have the benefits of full-fat milk, including high levels of calcium, with much lower levels of fat. The Scottish Government sets nutritional standards for local authorities to ensure pupils are offered balanced and nutritious food and drink. in schools, this includes guidelines recommending the serving of skimmed or semi skimmed milk only.”
However, the dairy owner was able to point to a study, published in the American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition last year, that showed children who drank whole milk had fewer weight problems than whose who drank skimmed – or, to quote the study itself:
“Whole milk consumption among healthy young children was associated with higher vitamin D stores and lower BMI (Body Mass Index). Longitudinal and interventional studies are needed to confirm these findings.”
Something very similar emerged from a major study (involving 135,000 people) published last month in The Lancet. It showed total fat and individual types of fat being related to lower total mortality – i.e. death rates. Each type of fat was associated with significantly reduced mortality risk: 14 percent lower for saturated fat, 19 percent for mono-unsaturated fat, and 20 percent for polyunsaturated fat,” according to the study. Higher saturated fat intake was also linked to a 21 percent decrease in stroke risk. In other words, eating more fat was associated with living longer.
But this isn’t new. In the 1993, The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute commissioned the largest controlled trial of low-fat diet ever undertaken. In 2006, the results were published (in the Journal of the American Medical Association):
“Following an eating pattern lower in total fat did not significantly reduce the incidence of breast cancer, heart disease, or stroke, and did not reduce the risk of colorectal cancer in healthy postmenopausal women, ….
Among the 48,835 women who participated in the trial, there were no significant differences in the rates of colorectal cancer, heart disease, or stroke between the group who followed a low-fat dietary plan and the comparison group who followed their normal dietary patterns. Although the women in the study who reduced their total fat intake had a 9 percent lower risk of breast cancer than did women who made no dietary changes, the difference was not large enough to be statistically significant — meaning it could have been due to chance.”
So – study after study after study in the last 20 years has show that cutting down in fat consumption is not associated with better health.
What does this have to do with government? Well, it was because of government policy that the school in Gigha wasn’t allowed to give the children whole milk. And, of course governments have, for decades now, felt it was their duty to give dietary advice – including, of course, advice on fat consumption.
Ian Leslie tells the story:
In 1980, after long consultation with some of America’s most senior nutrition scientists, the US government issued its first Dietary Guidelines. The guidelines shaped the diets of hundreds of millions of people. Doctors base their advice on them, food companies develop products to comply with them. Their influence extends beyond the US. In 1983, the UK government issued advice that closely followed the American example. The most prominent recommendation of both governments was to cut back on saturated fats and cholesterol (this was the first time that the public had been advised to eat less of something, rather than enough of everything).
And the result was?
Look at a graph of postwar obesity rates and it becomes clear that something changed after 1980. In the US, the line rises very gradually until, in the early 1980s, it takes off like an aeroplane. Just 12% of Americans were obese in 1950, 15% in 1980, 35% by 2000. In the UK, the line is flat for decades until the mid-1980s, at which point it also turns towards the sky. Only 6% of Britons were obese in 1980. In the next 20 years that figure more than trebled.
The government felt that something must be done. So it acted to do something it had never done before . And what happened was exactly the opposite of what it intended.
In 2014, Time Magazine had a cover story entitled “Ending the war on fat”. It came out almost exactly 30 years after Time‘s front cover featured the beginning of the war. The 1984 cover proclaimed: Cholesterol: And now the bad news . . . . By contrast the message of the 2014 cover was “Eat Butter. Scientists labelled fat the enemy. Why they were wrong.”
Perhaps the most interesting lines from the article were these: “The war over fat is far from over. Consumer habits are deeply formed, and entire industries are based on demonizing fat. TV teems with reality shows about losing weight. The aisles are still filled with low-fat snacks. “
Three years later, nothing has changed. And the Scottish government is still keen on keeping whole milk out of schools – despite the fact that the war on fat has been fairly effectively debunked.
The War on Terror
Then there is the “War on Terror“. Sixteen years ago, as a result of the 9/11 attacks, U.S. president George W. Bush first used the term “war on terrorism” on 16 September 2001, and then “war on terror” a few days later in a formal speech to Congress. In the latter speech, George Bush stated, “Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.” The term was originally used with a particular focus on countries associated with al-Qaeda.
What happened? America (in conjunction with the UK and other allies) literally went to war. They attacked Afghanistan the following month – and proceeded to overthrow the government. This might seem slightly odd, since the government of Afghanistan were not actually involved in planning or carrying out the 9/11 attacks. However, since the attacks were carried out by al-Qaeda – and since the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, was in Afghanistan – and since the Afghan government had responded to the American request to hand him over by saying that they would require evidence that Bin Laden was behind the 9/11 attacks – the Americans invaded. Even though bin Laden promptly fled to Pakistan, the American forces stayed in Afghanistan, and 16 years later, show no signs of ever leaving. (I tell the story here)
How successful was the invasion and occupation? Not very. Afghanistan is still a country at war, and the Taliban today control more territory than at any point since 2002.
However, America didn’t stop with Afghanistan. They went on to attack Iraq. This too, seems odd, since not only did the Iraqi government have nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, but it had never harboured al-Qaeda (or any other terrorist organisation that was threatening Americans). Indeed, it was a secular government, with no enthusiasm for Islamic extremism. The American government did, at one stage, claim that there was evidence of connections between the Iraqi government and al-Qaeda, but this story was quickly debunked. The fact that the story was debunked made no difference of course; the American government was determined to overthrow the Iraqi government, and so most Americans continued to think that in some way Iraq was complicit in the 9/11 attacks.
The result was not only that more Americans died in action in Iraq than were killed in the 9/11 attacks, but thousands of Iraqis died, and Iraq has been in turmoil ever since in an never-ending war between different factions. Iraq Body Count estimates civilian casualties so far at around 200,000. Many believe the total number of deaths caused directly and indirectly by the American invasion to be well over half a million. And, while al-Qaeda had no presence at all in Iraq before the American invasion, the chaos in the country created by the invasion allowed them to get a foothold, and an al-Qaeda splinter group called ISIS soon controlled much of the country – making post-invasion Iraq a much more safe haven for Islamic extremists than Afghanistan had been at the time of the 9/11 attacks.
And then there is Syria. America never actually invaded Syria. But it did get involved. I recently quoted the Dutch scholar, Nikolaos van Dam (whose book, Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria, came out just over a month ago) saying
“It is better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing with terrible results. If there had not been any Western influence, there would have been a tenth of the violence, the country would not be in rubble, so many would not have died, you would not have had so many refugees.”
But Western influence didn’t just contribute to the death and destruction. It also empowered al-Qaeda. Syria under Bashar Assad, had (like Iraq before the American invasion) a secular government which was hostile to Islamic extremism, and particularly hostile to Salafist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. America, however, declared that Assad must go, and launched an operation called Timber Sycamore to funnel arms and equipment to Syrian rebels. Since al-Qaeda dominated the Syrian rebel groups, the arms basically went to al-Qaeda. As a result, it was U.S. government policy that was largely responsible for having extended al-Qaeda’s power across a significant part of Syrian territory.
The really scandalous thing was that not only did western politicians refuse to admit what they had done, but the western media has done its best to make sure people in Britain and America don’t find out. Robert Fisk, veteran Middle East correspondent of the Independent has spoken about this many times, just last week writing:
“Journalists who had arrived in Aleppo with the rebels, en route for the “liberation” of Damascus along the lines of the “liberation” of Tripoli in Libya, justifiably retreated when the warriors of ISIS took to beating, imprisoning and chopping off their heads – but largely without telling us what had happened to the revolution. The “good guys” in our stories, after all, are not supposed to turn into the “bad guys”. Van Dam asks why, in all the later reports on the bombardment by the regime of eastern Aleppo, the world never saw film of the Islamist fighters there, nor their weapons, nor their armed control of the streets. “If you look at the media reports,” he says, “it’s as if the bombs only fell on schools and hospitals.””
The prize for spectacular dishonesty (or delusion) goes to British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon. When it became clear last December that al-Qaeda and its allies were going to be finally driven out of Aleppo, he said “It looks now as if sadly Aleppo will fall.”
The good news for Fallon is that al-Qaeda and its allies remain in control of the nearby Idlib province in Syria, which makes it another handy safe haven for terrorists.
And then there is Libya. A year ago, the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee’s report on Britain’s military intervention in Libya ago came out. The report found that the result of the French, British and US intervention that took place in 2011, “was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL [Islamic State] in north Africa”.
According to the chairman of the committee, Crispin Blunt, “we had no proper appreciation of what was going to happen in the event of regime change, no proper understanding of Libya, and no proper plan for the consequences.”
In other words, it’s the same story as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The result was exactly the opposite of what we were promised.
As for the situation on the ground in America and Western Europe, violent attacks by politically motivated Muslims, which were very rare before the launch of the war on terrorism, became a lot more common. In the UK, the first attack was on the 7th of July, 2005, when four suicide bombers killed 56 people (including themselves) in London.
Two of the bombers made videotapes describing their reasons for their actions. One included the line
“What have you witnessed now is only the beginning of a string of attacks that will continue and become stronger until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq. And until you stop your financial and military support to America and Israel.”
There is little doubt that Britain was targeted largely because of its foreign policy, and in particular, its actions in the Middle East – or, to put it another way, its involvement in the “war on terrorism”.
There is also little doubt that the killing of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in several countries in the Middle East in recent years by Western powers, has had the result of making many people – some in the Middle East, some of Middle Eastern background but living in the West – very angry – and also very hostile to Western governments and Western society.1
In other words, the “war on terror”, like the “war on fat”, seems to be achieving exactly the opposite of what it promised.
And, just as it could be said that the “war on fat” was far from over because consumer habits were deeply formed, and entire industries were based on demonizing fat – I think it can be said that the “war on terror” is far from over because political habits are deeply formed, and entire industries are based on playing up the need for military action.
Hearts and Minds
And, while we are on the subject of the war on terror, it is worth remembering that western governments had a lot to say about humanitarian reasons for involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. There was great talk about bringing democracy and freedom to the people of these countries. And it is true that a lot of aid did flow in, especially to Afghanistan and Iraq.
The story from Iraq is not good. Peter van Buren, an American civil servant was sent there in 2009 to work on American government goodwill projects. The title of his book about his experiences – “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People” – tells you all you need to know.
The story from Afghanistan is even worse. According to an article published by the Journal of World Affairs in 2013 entitled “The Money Pit: The Monstrous Failure of US Aid to Afghanistan,” the aid has been exactly that, a failure. Since 2002, approximately 100 billion has been appropriated for aid, and “all of that has not brought the United States or Afghanistan a single sustainable institution or program.”
But it’s worse than that. In her 2012 book, When more is less: The International Project in Afghanistan, Astri Suhrke not only says that the resources poured into the country have not actually helped the Afghan people. She also says that the Afghans are often left bewildered and alienated by the work of such groups—or worse, after sufficient alienation, are inspired to join jihad against them. She concludes
that the objectives of the international project have generally been unmet and that, in particular, the scope of involvement from international players and the grand scale of their financial, military, and political “support” has been not only ineffective but counterproductive.
Efforts by the American government, at great expense, to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan achieved nothing at all – and the evidence suggests that once again, we have examples of government programmes that achieved exactly the opposite of what was promised.
Which raises the question – what about other government programmes?
This month, the BBC covered a story entitled “New curriculum could be ‘disastrous’, says education expert.” Prof Lindsay Paterson, from the University of Edinburgh, was quoted as saying that the new Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) (introduced in Scotland’s schools in 2010) lacked “academic rigour” and was “dumbing down” education, and that it could widen the attainment gap, not close it.
The Scottish government, of course, insisted CfE was “strong, bold and effective”.
I don’t know what the truth is. But, as the BBC report says “the government’s studies on literacy and numeracy do suggest that things are not getting any better and may in some ways be getting worse.” And it points out that “Last year’s international PISA rankings caused concern placing Scotland as “average” in all three categories for the first time ever.”
Looking at the graph, I’d say that’s an understatement.
The point is that it is not as if the Scottish Government doesn’t care, or isn’t trying. It does care. It is putting a lot of effort – and money – into education. And yet, once again, what we have an example of a government programme achieving exactly opposite of what was promised.
And then there is government healthcare. One of the biggest advances made by government in healthcare anywhere in the world recently was the introduction of the Affordable Care Act (known as Obamacare) in America.
It is only in its early days, and is much appreciated by many people. But will it actually cause Americans to have better health? Of course we don’t know yet, and perhaps we never will, but early results indicate that, oddly enough, it might actually be hurting rather than helping.
Robert Murphy, an economist who is a Christian (and who strikes me as a very honest person) wrote an article a few months ago entitled “Did Obamacare Really Save Lives?“
He begins, “One of the popular objections to the GOP proposals to reform health insurance markets is that the Affordable Care Act (aka “ObamaCare”) saved thousands of lives per year, and hence that tinkering with ObamaCare will literally kill lots of people.” However (he continues) “Believe it or not, the data suggest that if anything, ObamaCare actually caused more Americans to die.”
If you are interested, you can look at the article, and the research that it links to. But the gist is that in the year after the ACA insurance coverage took effect, the age-adjusted mortality rate (which tends to fall over time) went up. But the really interesting thing is that not all states in America fully adopted the ACA – and that it was in the states that more fully adopted Obamacare that the death rate went up. In those that didn’t, it went down.
Could this be yet another thing that the government has done that has actually achieved the opposite of what was promised? It’s too early to know, since data is only available for one year, but it will be interesting to see what the data shows next year.
So – we have governments
- giving advice on diet,
- telling schools what milk they can serve,
- attacking countries thousands of miles from their borders (that have not attacked them) in an effort to stop politically motivated crimes,
- spending billions on infrastructure projects in foreign countries that they have attacked in an effort to buy goodwill,
- telling schools and teachers what they should be teaching, and
- making detailed rules about forcing people to buy health insurance and telling health insurance companies exactly what they can and cannot do.
Apart from the facts that these schemes by governments so often seem to be counterproductive, and that politicians seem to be totally unwilling to admit (even to themselves) that their grand schemes are counterproductive, two things strike me.
The first is that when I read the Bible, none of these things seem like the things that governments are supposed to do. The second is that when I look at human history, it is pretty clear that none of these things were things that governments would dream of doing for most of human history. Even 150 years ago, governments never would have thought of doing these things.
Of course, a lot of this is simply about what people are like. We often think that we can, if we really put our mind to it, do things, and then find that those things turn out not to be so easy. And so I think again of the ancient Biblical Proverbs: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” (16:9) and “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.” (19:21).
Self-confidence is a problem many of us have. But self-confidence is particularly problematical, when we are confident that we have the ability to make a real difference in the lives of other people, or in the groups and organisations that we are involved in. When we believe that, our self-confidence often turns out to be badly misplaced. Hence the apostle Paul encourages Christians to mind their own business (I Thessalonians 4:11), and he speaks about the danger of people being busybodies (I Timothy 5:13).
But when you have not just self-confidence and the busy-body tendency, but also lots of people coming together to achieve something, you have another danger – the danger not just of being over-optimistic, but of being utopian. We think that if people come together and organise, they can build great things. And of course they can – to some extent. But utopian visions are usually unrealistic, and social engineering does not have as good as track record as mechanical or civil engineering.
So this isn’t just about self-confidence and human pride. It is also about government – about the belief that people coming together and organizing can shape society.
And so I am reminded again of the account of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) – a story about people coming together to achieve great things – and how it all fell apart.
It begins with unity, and a great plan:
“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”
It ends with the plan in tatters, and the unity gone, and the people scattered:
“And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.”
One of the implications seems to be that confidence in human ability to come together with great schemes – and in particular, utopian schemes – is something we should be sceptical about.
So it’s not just the words “something should be done” that should scare us. There are other calls to action that we should also be wary about. And, it seems to me that the words “come, let us build” are another four words that often go before destruction.
1. Within a day of writing, another (and closely related) example of government action that is likely to be counterproductive popped up – this this time from Patrick Cockburn in the Independent.
Government initiatives like the “Prevent” campaign are an irrelevance where they are not counterproductive. They purport to identify and expose signs of domestic Islamic radicalism (though nobody knows what these are), but in practice they are a form of collective punishment of the three million British Muslims, serving only to alienate many and push a tiny minority towards sympathy for Isis and al-Qaeda-linked movements.