Primum non nocere

September 4, 2013

If I were ever to get myself elected to public office, not that that’s likely to happen, my motto for governing would be: primum non nocere. It’s attributed to Hippocrates, although there’s no evidence he ever said it, and means “First, do no harm.”

People seem to think when something bad happens you have to do something to try to fix it. And so for thousands of years when people got sick “healers” would brew up noxious potions or apply leeches or try other absurd things that more often than not only made the patient get worse. Then a couple of hundred years ago some doctors realized they didn’t know enough, and had the courage to step back and observe the course of diseases, while making the sufferers as comfortable as possible, but without trying treatments they didn’t really know would work. This, along with the discovery of microbes and other scientific observations, led to modern medicine, which actually works in many cases. (People still expect doctors to do something to cure them, though. Many drugs are overprescribed, for one thing.)

The same thing happens in politics. Something bad happens, and politicians and bureaucrats rush to pass a new law or implement a new policy or establish a new government program, because we have to do something even if it doesn’t actually do any good, in fact even if it makes things worse. We desperately need politicians and officials who will follow the example of the early scientific doctors and observe and study before trying to fix things.

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