I'm looking for an expression that conveys an excessive risk management approach that ends up having a worse effect than what it is trying to protect against.

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    possible duplicate of Is there an aphorism for doing a self-defeating act?
    – aedia λ
    Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 17:06
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    @aedia: I think this question is a bit different. Having a worse effect than what one is trying to protect against, while possibly self-defeating, is also more extreme. Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 17:17
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    Does the phrase in the title come from somewhere/some language in particular or is it just something you made up to get at what you want?
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 17:27
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    @Callithumpian That's a good point. I agree that this is asking for something with more of a destructive connotation, rather than just self-defeating (not making any progress).
    – aedia λ
    Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 17:47
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    One point that is unclear in the question is whether the killing of the sheep is intentional. "Cure worse than disease" and "baby with bathwater" do not suggest this. "Burn the village to save it" certainly does.
    – horatio
    Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 20:25

12 Answers 12


A common saying that comes to mind is The cure is worse than the disease, which thefreedictionary says first appeared in Philip Massinger's 1624 play The Bondman.

  • Ahh, this is good, captures pretty well what I was trying to convey.
    – Frank
    Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 18:04
  • @Frank: Yes, I'm surprised there are a couple of "votes to close" on the grounds that your question is an exact duplicate. The linked question very specifically asked for expressions where the action and the reason for taking it are inherently contradictory. The nuance implied by your ...approach that ends up having a worse effect... makes this a significantly different question, IMHO. For example, 'Chop the branch you're sitting on' was an excellent answer there, but would be a bit out of place here. Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 18:26
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    This is pretty spot-on. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater also came to mind, but I think yours is a better fit.
    – user13141
    Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 18:39
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    related xkcd: xkcd.com/938 Commented Sep 29, 2011 at 10:03
  • Notice that I didn't say happy 17K!
    – Daniel
    Commented Sep 29, 2011 at 17:54

"Cutting your nose off to spite your face"?

Cutting off the nose to spite the face" is an expression used to describe a needlessly self-destructive over-reaction to a problem.

Sounds like a good fit to me!

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    This doesn't seem to be quite the same IMHO. It infers a sense of spite, which the OP did not request.
    – Urbycoz
    Commented Sep 29, 2011 at 11:01

I agree with @FumbleFingers for the general case; "the cure is worse than the disease" is well-understood. If you're looking for something a little more colorful (akin to your title), "we had to burn the village in order to save it" is a US expression arising from the Vietnam war. (As noted there, this is not the original formulation, but it's a common version.)

  • I could have sworn that was from WWII, but all references seem to mention Ben Tre and Vietnam.
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 29, 2011 at 12:34
  • It is of course possible that it has an earlier usage. I'm not old enough to have direct knowledge of WWII. :-) Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 0:25
  • I thought of this phrase, too. The horrible thing about it as applied to the Vietnam War is that it made a certain degree of sense (from the U.S. perspective) if you included the unspoken completion of the thought: "We had to destroy the village to save it [from Communism]." As a banner behind a later U.S. president celebrating a different victory proclaimed, "Mission accomplished."
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 20:47

I'd say you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater, in that you're accomplishing your goal but doing it in such an overly thorough way that you end up with very negative consequences.

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    It does normally get used with the very specific meaning that action taken to get rid of the things you don't want is so extreme/indiscriminate that you also end up throwing away the very thing you do want. That precise implication needn't be present in OP's context. Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 21:30
  • Which is why I suggested the same in a comment rather than an answer. :)
    – user13141
    Commented Sep 29, 2011 at 9:40

The phrase "don't burn down the barn to kill the rats" was used to criticize McCarthyism.


Militarily speaking, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD), might fit this bill:

A doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which a full-scale use of high-yield weapons of mass destruction by two opposing sides would effectively result in the complete, utter and irrevocable annihilation of both the attacker and the defender, becoming thus a war that has no victory nor any armistice but only effective reciprocal destruction.


Sounds like a case of the fox guarding the henhouse/fence eating the crop. There are bound to be other expressions as well. You could also call it a Pyrrhic Solution.

EDIT: In deference to @Mitch's comment below (and the two flaggers), I've hyperlinked the word Pyrrhic, for the record. Thanks, Mitch.

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    You should make Pyrrhic victory an answer on its own.
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 17:28
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    Also slightly related: cutting off your nose to spite your face Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 18:42
  • @Mitch:- Thanks, was AFK. Didn't link it because I'd typed out Solution in place of Victory. Your link makes it clear. Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 20:36
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    Not quite there: When the fox guards the henhouse, it's because the farmer didn't realize that he was a fox; the original phrase implies that the farmer knows it's a fox and is accepting a foolish risk.
    – jprete
    Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 21:17
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    @Jprete: I take your point, but I still think the phrase is turned eaily - e.g., 'it's like the farmer trusting the fox to guard the chickens' Commented Sep 28, 2011 at 21:27

"An expensive way to save cash" may get the point across to the management.

"A prodigal safe" would be more brief.


There is a German word "Verschlimmbesserung" which I've seen used in English literature (without it being translated).

Literally translated this would be "disimprovement", ie. an attempt at improvement which makes the end result worse. I think this might fit what you're trying to say.


Shoot the hostage.


There's the (recent) classic: "We had to destroy the village to save it."


Out of the frying pan and into the fire

has the possible application of the results of fixing one problem result in worse problems.

  • I do not think this really answers the question. Commented Sep 29, 2011 at 6:15

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