This commentary is by Tom Evslin of Stowe, an entrepreneur, author and former Douglas administration official. His blog is here.
In 1519, Hernan Cortes burned his ships in Veracruz to prevent any attempt by his soldiers to return to Cuba instead of conquering the Aztecs.
“Reformers” also like this strategy. If you close mental hospitals, better and more effective ways of dealing with mental illness will happen. If you fire the cops and free the offenders, the root causes of crime will be addressed. If you shut down the cores and stop drilling, renewables and drastic conservation will happen immediately.
The problem is, the world doesn’t usually work that way, despite Cortes’ example to the contrary.
The book and movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” helped turn America against the “big mental hospitals.” The horrors of some of these institutions have long been documented.
We decided to close these places and put an end to the misery and abuse of patients. The theory was that modern psychiatry and drugs would allow prisoners to lead lives in the community or in pleasant local institutions. Deinstitutionalization became the rule; large institutions such as the hospital in Waterbury, Vermont, were emptied and not replaced as they fell into decay.
The problem is that the theory was wrong. Community institutions were never built, in large part because of community resistance. People with acute mental problems are not very good at taking the drugs prescribed for them – and are easy targets for those selling drugs that make their problem worse. Psychotherapy is hardly a quick or sure cure.
Housing is difficult enough to secure and maintain for those on moderate incomes; it is impossible for those with severe mental problems. Our cities are littered with a filthy homeless camp. Emergency rooms are increasingly dangerous for both patients and staff because the mentally ill are bought there and then remain.
Although most people with untreated mental illness are more dangerous to themselves than others, much violence is committed by mentally ill people who are known repeat offenders. New York City is now returning to involuntary incarceration of schizophrenics for public safety reasons, although it is not clear to which institutions they will be sent.
Mental institutions should have been reformed. Involuntary commitment will always need safeguards. Perhaps community health centers should be built despite local opposition. But the large mental hospitals should have remained in operation while they were being reformed and until alternatives were actually available. Now we are faced with rebuilding them or locking the mentally ill with the general prison population. We burned the ships very quickly.
Well-meaning people, horrified by some appalling cases of police misconduct, forced cuts to the police in the belief that the public would be protected by “addressing the root causes of crime” and sending in social workers to deal with threatening situation.
Nice theory. But we have not reduced the root causes of crime. Partly because of the mental health crisis, social workers are seeking police protection for the calls they made themselves. Offenders are jailed less; they are more likely to reoffend; they commit a crime.
It seems we need more police – and we have less. We have more crime. We burned the ships of criminal justice before we had any way to move forward.
Big nuclear power plants scared people – even though they have the best safety record of any energy source and are carbon-free.
Germany shut down almost all of its nuclear weapons; so did Japan for a time; The US did not rebuild its old nuclear weapons or replace them with newer models. Like Vermont Yankee, older plants are closing without a clean replacement for the power they generated.
Fossil fuels contribute to climate change. Europe almost stopped drilling for oil and natural gas. The United States has not built the necessary pipelines and has disinvested in fossil fuels.
Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it was clear that sufficient renewables, energy storage and transmission were not available to replace decommissioned nuclear weapons and depleted fossil fuel resources. The energy shortage could be even worse if the pandemic did not slow growth.
Putin saw the energy solution we had left ourselves in and it encouraged him to challenge Europe. We burned the power ships when we still needed them.
Real problems—such as abusive and ineffective mental hospitals, crime and police misconduct, and the effect of energy production on the environment—need to be addressed. Burning ships before alternatives are in place historically makes the problems worse.
BTW, Cortes returned to Cuba with a reinforcement ship.