Hormesis: When Bad Public Policy Passes the Point of No Return

Hormegeddon happens all the time and it happens in small ways and big ways. But what I’m describing are large-scale public policy disasters.

One example in the book is Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, which is interesting because it was so obviously bad – from the very beginning a bad idea, where even his top advisors who had lived in Russia, came to him – and one of them had reported in his autobiography that he’d gotten down on his knees and begged the emperor not to invade Russia because he said it’s just unbelievable. Russia is a disaster. It’s a wasteland. There are no roads. The winters are fierce. The people are deadly.

And he said, “If you invade Russia, it will be the death of France. It will be the end of the empire.” But Napoleon went ahead and invaded Russia. Of course, it turned out just as predicted, that it was a total disaster.

But regarding Napoleon’s rise to power and everything – a little of Napoleon was a good thing. He did a lot for France. He saved it, in a way, but a lot was a disaster and of course it ended very, very badly and France was occupied at the end.

I like these military examples, by the way, because the military world is so full of big, big disasters which are so disastrous that you can’t help but notice them.

Another military example I use is Nazi Germany. And that’s a good one because Hitler was not just a maniac…he was more than that. He was an economist and he was a man with a plan. And his plan was essentially a public policy plan – he had noticed after World War I that Germany didn’t have enough food to support itself.

Of course, the reason for that was obvious – that they had spent so much on the war that there had been very investment in the agricultural sector. But he didn’t see that part. He saw that Germany couldn’t sustain itself and he thought, “Well, we need more farmland.” And he looked around and said, “Well, where is there farmland?” It’s in the east, so his idea was to invade the Poland and Ukraine and to take that farmland.

And he had a precedent for that. He thought there’s nothing wrong with doing that because it’s exactly what the Americans had done. They had invaded Kansas, Nebraska, the whole plains states – in fact, the whole center of the country was invaded by the colonists, stolen from the Indians, and then put into service and turned into a real breadbasket for the United States. And his plan was to do the same thing for Germany, to turn the Ukraine and Poland – the eastern part of Russia – into a breadbasket. It was thinly populated and he saw the people there like many Americans saw the Native Americans as sort of an intermesh people who are sub-human or sub-something or other. And so it all seemed to make sense from a public policy point of view.

So they began to spend money on defense. First, it was defense because after the war they were defenseless. And then on security, more and more spending because he needed to stake these lands to the east. And so they spent more and more of the budget of the nation on military affairs.

Again, a little bit of that spending was probably a good thing because after the war, Germany was defenseless. But the more they spent, the rate of return from defense spending went down and then finally, it was absolutely, completely disastrous because the thing that they were most concerned about – the security of the country – was the thing that they lost.

And at the end of the war, the country was invaded, taken over by foreign powers, divided up. It was just an absolute, complete disaster.

So that’s hormesis. That’s how it happens – when you think you pursue something you think is a good public policy goal. And it always begins in some kind of theory about they way things work and it always have some sort of economic or military component. And then you keep going. That’s what makes it different from private affairs because in private, you get stopped. Something stops you. You run out of money, you see, somebody tells you to knock it off, something happens. But in public, you can keep going to the bitter end. And that’s hormesis. That’s when a public policy is pursued beyond any reasonable return.