Unintended Consequences

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Every action causes a reaction. Some reactions are pleasant surprises, many are negatives, some are counter productive (perverse) and make the problem worse. Since consequences matter more than intentions, we have a social obligation to plan for them (and avoid them). The phrase is used as either a wry warning against the hubristic belief that humans can control the world around them, or more often against a really bad implementation of not-so-smart ideas or implementations.

Even if you weigh the value of these issues differently than I do (and many will), all responsible adults should accept responsibility for their own actions (and policies). Thus they need to accept responsibility for all negative consequences as well as positive ones: under the old adage, "you break it, you bought it!" And that means they need to honestly dissect all the potential failures in advance and honestly listen to all criticisms in advance, or be irresponsible douchebags that hurt people for sake of their own egos. Remember, if you created the actions, you’re responsible for the benefit AND THE HARM that comes from them. And the more you failed to use your brains, and think/listen in advance (or avoid corrective action during the execution), then the more responsibility you bear for negative outcomes.

This is nothing new.

  • This dates back at least to John Locke warning of the unintended consequences of interest rate regulation to Members of Parliament in 1691.
  • It was also popular with Adam Smith in his, "The Theory of Moral Sentiments
  • And the American sociologist Robert K. Merton, repopularized the term in his 1936 paper, "The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action”.
  • Even Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect” (another way of saying, “shut up and think it through”).

The rules come in many flavors:

  • Intelligence agencies have their own jargon for unintended consequences called "blowback"[1], where doing one thing, results in another (which may be worse)
  • Cobra Effect[2], after the disastrous outcome in Colonial India. There were too many poisonous snakes, so the Brits offered a bounty on them. So people started breeding them for bounty. The government cancelled the bounty, and the cobras were set free: increasing the total population.
  • Campbell's law[3], "The more any social indicator is used for decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor".
  • Goodhart's law[4], "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure."
  • Lucas critique[5], was a brilliant proof showing why Keynesianism always fails. Because, 'any change in policy will systematically alter the structure of econometric models that the decision was based on' -- thus the models are always wrong.

This isn't that hard either. In engineering and project management there’s something called a pre-mortem: a post-mortem done in advance. Where you say, “this project was a fucking disaster, now what went wrong, and how do we fix it?” Then you prophalactyically prepare and fix all the things that can go wrong (before you've done anything). It doesn't stop the unexpected, it just reduces the count, gets buy-in (by making all voices heard), and it sure reduces the count of unexpected surprises (and often builds contingency plans when they do happen). Basically, it is the opposite of Obamacare. Of course you can’t do when KC and the Sunshine Band is running around pretending that nothing can go wrong, and then denying responsibility for failing to plan or mitigate all the things that the rest suspected was coming. We used to hold people accountable for these bad choices, but that's fallen out of vogue.

Historically, we used to celebrate the wise old cynics, that would shoot holes in our well intended but bad ideas (and then work to help us fix/mitigate those risks). Because the wise know it’s much less costly and harmful to strangle a bad idea in its infancy, than to let the mothra hatch and burn down Tokyo. But the progressives worship of hope and change, and putting the value of starry eye'd youth over craggily wizened experience, flipped common sense on it's head. Thus since FDR (and especially the 60's-70's), every new hollow political promise to fix something (usually that they fucked up in the first place), must be met with wide eye'd enthusiasm, and anyone trying to warn of issues will be viciously attacked with an epithet like, "stogy", "out of touch" or "obstructionistic conservative". Obama's favorite technique was, "there's my way, or do nothing: which the other side advocates". Which is of course a lie and false dichotomy fallacy in one, and the sad part is that his base refuses to catch on the gimmick, and their culpability in the people hurt by ignoring the warnings. Really, the cynics just have a lifetime of experience, some historical knowledge, and an attention span to read more than 140 characters at a time, to draw upon. They care enough about the ends (not hurting people), to put thinking it thru and shooting down bad iedas, above pretending to do something as the big ego stroke. Thus the responsible think though the consequences of their actions, and the progressives attack anyone that impedes their agenda with consequences or common sense.

I did a video on this a while back (back in 2010). Just taping a toastmasters speech I did:

But there are many, many more examples:

  • Deepwater Horizon was caused by Environmentalism - basically, by not being allowed to drill in places like near coasts, and frozen wastelands like ANWR, we were forced to get oil in more risky places like deepwater drilling, or shipping the oil much further: both increases risks of accidents, more than the faux environmentalism helps anyone. Would you rather the oil was drilled in one of the most remote and desolate places on earth (but can use an established pipeline), or force it to much riskier and populous places, with much more severe impacts, and suffer the consequences? Since the environmentalists don't think through the consequences of their actions, they picked poorly.
  • The federally mandated 55 MPH speed limit failed at every goal: it was instituted to increase safety and save oil. It only saved 1/4th the oil they promised ($350M), but it cost $3.65B in enforcement. We went from 70% compliance of speed limits to 90% non-compliance, no difference in accidents or fatalities (in fact when we raised speed limits later, accident rates declined). It caused a bitter legal fight against the unconstitutional overreach and was eventually abandoned after many millions of dollars and decades of court time wasted on that: http://www.heritage.org/Research/Reports/1986/09/The-High-Cost-of-the-55-MPH-Speed-Limit
  • Light-rail creation cost billions (that could be better spent on roads/busses), is less convenient and economical than busses (95% of rider conversions are from busses to trains, not cars to trains), and increases pollution significantly. It hurts the poor as rail fares are higher (and they need to raise bus rates to subsidize/compete with rail rates). And the time to get places (door-to-door) usually take longer. So other than it cost more, serves fewer people, hurts the poor, requires state subsidies (loses money), and increases pollution, they're a great idea. (Busses get about 180 MPG-per-rider, as compared to about 35MPG-per-rider that light-rail gets -- before factoring in that light-rail impedes other traffic, increasing their pollution). That means if you drive a Prius or carpool, you're far more environmentally conscious than light-rail: http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=8655
  • Carpool lanes (HOV/Diamond Lanes) cost California $2.5B+, and what did we get? A >20% capacity penalty (which increases pollution), a decrease in carpooling, and 50% increased injuries. It turns out a high speed lane right next to a parking lot increases accidents and injury on entry/exit: http://web.archive.org/web/20140611061527/http://paleale.eecs.berkeley.edu/~varaiya/papers_ps.dir/HOV.pdf
  • Social Security has not taught people to plan for their future, and instead has taught many to let the government do their planning for them (turning them into dependents). After this and other social programs, Americans savings went down, and it made more people dependent on the dole than it took off (look it up). Americans save less than about any other society in the world - why should they? The government will take care of them. So many are far worse off today than they would have been had there been nothing but empty promises, backed by inflation devaluing the returns in their golden years. Imagine if we’d taught society to take responsibility for their own retirement? SS has even helped break down the family bonds since people don't have to care for parents or grandparents and think "that is governments job”.
  • Welfare paid people to not work and not get married, and shocker of shockers, they got more people to not work and have kids out of wedlock (hurting the kids, the families, and society at large). It taught many that they don't have to work, and they can live off of others. In fact, it has told teens that they can get a free ride in life if they just have kids. Of course the realities are not so pleasant as they think, but once lured in, it is hard to get out. Having done social work, it was not uncommon to hear teenage girls talking about how they were going to get knocked up to get that govt. paycheck and get out of the house. Poverty, single parenthood, gangs and crime went UP after Johnson’s “Great Society”, despite trillions of dollars poured into it.
  • Alcohol prohibition created an illicit industry, that empowered organized crime (and mass violence). And the War on drugs has not stopped or even slowed illegal drugs. If you doubt me, ask your high school kid if he could buy a joint if he wanted. In fact the "war" has only increased the profits for running drugs, and lured many into a selling drugs for profit (maybe to get out of the welfare trap). The results are these kids often have to exist in gangs to survive, and they still get killed or imprisoned (where they cost society even more) -- remember gangs have gotten so much worse because now they are fighting over drug-distribution rights (and profits). Our politicians keep telling us if we give up a little more money, take a few more civil rights away, then we will be able to stop drugs and things will be better, when we can't stop illegal drugs in our prisons (with regular strip searches), and police states like Iran have bigger drug problems than we do. So far, we've only made things worse.
  • Gun control shows that 30,000+ gun control laws have only resulted in more violence and gun crime. The areas with the strictest (and lowest gun ownerships), have the worst crime/murder problems. The areas with the loosest laws, have the least. And the stricter places got worse after the laws were passed. It's self defeating, but you can't teach the zealots of anti-gun religion any facts that contradict their dogma.
  • Outlawing most things just make those things more profitable and seedy, and may encourage the actions. Telling someone they can't do something is sometimes a way to make them want to do it more.
  • Helmet, seatbelt, and airbag laws, all are known to have increased death and injury. Some of this is due to risk compensation (Peltzman effect), so people feel safer wearing a helmet and do dumber/riskier things', other drives see the helmet and make assumptions on safety and competence, so drive closer to them, or just that the helmet impedes vision/hearing and that increases accidents.
  • Raising taxes (beyond certain unknown thresholds) causes more hoarding of money and many to hide money (off shore, in their mattress, etc.) and can de-stimulate the economy and often result in LESS money going to those very programs than if things had been left alone
  • The peaceniks of the 60's and 70's meant well, and wanted us out of Vietnam - their actions caused us to be far weaker in negotiations and in fighting (and may have contributed to politicians trying to micromanage the war) and may have delayed the victory or retreat (probably more than they encouraged it). They may have cost far more lives in their drive to save them (we don't know). We do know that their drive to get us out of South Asia (and keep us out of area) helped Pol Pot's rise to power, the Khmer Rouge, and the killing of millions of innocent Cambodians (which the CIA had been warning against). Cause and effect. Unexpected consequences. Life can be tough. Of course the peaceniks meant well, and may have been righteous in wanting us the hell out of South Asian affairs; and they were probably right that we should have never been in. But there were very high costs for their actions too - as there always are.

And so on.


The point is not that all these programs (solutions) are wrong or bad, though many did more harm than good. The point is that all these well meaning programs had huge long term costs associated with them as well. Those that consider this in advance and are reluctant to approve of "do something", to prove that they're rational human beings, with a working brain and skeptical thinking capabilities: they want to explore and consider all the ways it can fail, and fix those in advance (to prevent undue harm).

The rest are irresponsible knee-jerk emotional types, that either don't have reasoning capacity, or are letting their emotions (ego) run the house. They want to help so much, and be so optimistic on any result of their great ideas, that they won't consider the alternatives. And then when you show the harm done, their egos are so vested in their ideas, that they feel like attacking the implementation is attacking them. Thus, ad hominem's and taking it personally, are a given. (You attacked them first, in their little ego-driven world).

The first thing we need to teach these progressives is that you don't change people by passing laws or making rules. They are usually counter-productive. Doing nothing means you're not responsible for the deaths/injuries that happen because of other people taking risks: but doing something (changing things) means you are not liable for the new outcome. If the rate stayed the same in the former case, you're not responsible for any lives lost or consequences. But doing something and making things worse, means you're liable for those increased deaths. Thus caution is warranted. Of course this paragraph starts with a false premise that progressives are still teachable: if they were capable of learning, they would already have some prudence and caution (and life gave them many opportunities to learn that). So by nature of their political philosophy, they've already proven their growth capacity.

So while I understand the naivete in youth, it just saddens me when older (and should be wiser) people are still enthusiastic advocates for progressive everything, and can’t think it through. Or as I say, “what’s the worst that can happen?” But I've learned that it doesn't matter. Those that want to ignore the risks of their actions don't appreciate the help and advice of those wiser and more cautious than they are. And thus articles like this, can only serve as confirmation bias for the people who have already learned the lessons life has offered them. And the rest, resent efforts at sharing wisdom. Thus the wise cynics are dying out, or giving in to the futility of slowing our devolution into anything but an idiocracy.


Written: 1998.09.05 Edited 2010.05.20, 2016.02.05