Mixed Metaphors: Why the wars on cancer, poverty, drugs, terror, drunk driving, teen pregnancy, and other ills can’t be won

Reference: Foreign Policy

February 22, 2010

By Moises Naim

What’s worse: declaring war against a social problem or calling for a Marshall Plan to solve it? Both are enduring and popular metaphors. Unfortunately, both lead to bad government decisions. Public policies shaped by such thinking more often than not result in waste, blind spots, and Manichaean mindsets that limit the search for more effective approaches. Think of the long-running wars on drugs, terrorism, and cancer. The results, all too predictably, have been more confusing than the problems.

In fact, no imitation of the Marshall Plan has ever worked, and no war on a big social problem has ever ended in defeat for the enemy (save, perhaps, cigarettes). But the allure of these spurious comparisons remains as strong as ever. Without any apparent effect, Marshall Plans have been proposed to help Africa, the Middle East, New Orleans, Iraq, and even Wallonia, Belgium’s least prosperous region. Bill Gates wants a Marshall Plan to broaden access to technology, French President Nicolas Sarkozy urges one for his country’s poor suburbs, and the AFL-CIO thinks the U.S. auto industry deserves its own Marshall Plan.

Advocates of war against big problems are just as plentiful. We have been asked to go to war against poverty, drunk driving, email spam, and teen pregnancy, just to name a few. In the United States, liberals denounce the Bush-era “war on science” while conservatives each year mobilize against the “war on Christmas.” And of course, there’s the favorite war of the global chattering class — the war against global warming. “This is World War III,” Barbara Young, then head of Britain’s Environment Agency, declared in 2007. “This is the biggest challenge to face the globe for many, many years. We need the sorts of concerted, fast, integrated, and above all huge efforts that went into many actions in times of war.”

There are many good reasons why declaring war on a social problem or launching a Marshall Plan to help a country or region are such attractive metaphors for politicians. Wars unite countries and stifle internal dissent. Wag the Dog is not just the title of a movie in which a war is manufactured to rally support for a government, but also an age-old political tactic. The war metaphor is also attractive because real wars — those between nation-states as opposed to those against concepts or bad socioeconomic trends — are finite. University of Notre Dame scholar Daniel Lindley has found that the average length of a war is 308 days when the country that starts it wins and 660 days when initiators lose. No surprise, then, that the war metaphor keeps getting deployed: It boosts expectations that in a few years a major scourge — cancer, terrorism, poverty — will be eliminated. “War” also holds the seductive promise of an open checkbook for the politicians who so liberally apply the term; after all, budgetary constraints tend to disappear during war along with all those pesky rules. Wars are for heroes, not for accountants who limit the resources needed for victory.

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