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 "unintended consequences" 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.

Issue Lie Truth
Unintended Consequences We can fix X by just doing Y, it's simple, just throw money at it. What could go wrong? The left always has the best of intentions, and ignores what the road to hell is paved with. Historically there are more failures of big-government than successes, and every action has a reaction. Progressives look for all the good that one of their things might do, without considering any of the bad or how people might adapt. Otherwise, the wouldn't be progressive but thoughtful conservatives.

History

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:

  • Blowback, Intelligence agencies use their own jargon for unintended consequences called "blowback", where doing one thing, results in another, which may be worse that the original problem. [1]
  • Cobra Effect, 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. [2]
  • Campbell's law, "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".[3]
  • Goodhart's law, "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure."[4]
  • Lucas critique, 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. [5]
Pre-mortem

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 disaster, now what went wrong and how do we fix it?” Then you prophylactically fix the problems, or design them out, before you've done anything else. It doesn't stop the completely unexpected, but it does reduces the count, builds contingencies, and lets more voices be heard up-front (which gets more buy-in). You can’t do this with people who want to deny that things go wrong, so it (and accountability) have fallen out of vogue with the rise of progressivism and millennials, but hopefully it'll make a comeback.

Examples

Historically, we used to celebrate the wise old cynics, that would shoot holes in our well intentioned but bad ideas, and save us from ourselves. 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 hope and change flips common sense on it's head: and leftism preys on the starry eye'd optimistic youth, over craggily wizened experience... and most leftist political promises are met with the wide eye'd enthusiasm that complete ignorance about past mistakes brings. But who are you going to believe? The experienced cynics with historical perspective, or Generation Twitter: those that don't have an attention span beyond 140 characters? Only if you care about people (and not hurting them), will you listen to former and try to think through the consequences before causing them.

Here are a few examples: Unintended Consequences : 18 items


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1990 Yacht Tax - Democrats in Congress passed a "fair share" luxury tax (30%) on airplanes, cars and yachts (as part of an Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990), and promised it would bring in $9B over the next 5 years. What actually happened is:
  • ≈25,000 workers in American Yacht Building lost their jobs, 75,000 more jobs were lost from companies supplying parts and materials to those yacht companies
  • The government not only didn't come close to target, they had to pay out billions in unemployment and lost income taxes instead
  • The Democrats (Clinton) ran on George being a liar for promising not to raise taxes, but compromising with the Democrat. And they blamed him for the economic cooling that caused. It cost Bush the Presidency.

55 MPH Speed Limit - 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.

California Wildfires - While there's no single cause for more/bigger/fires, there are many cumulative ones. Virtually all of them made California worse by adopting Green/Democrat/Left policies like restricting logging results in more forrest being burned: unintended consequences. The folks decided to do anything in the name of "environmentalism", while more reasonable people warned them that their policies would result in bigger wildfires. Now that reaped those consequences, instead of owning their mistakes, and learning, they want to blame: (a) Global Warming (b) Trump (for insensitively repeating what their own reports said) (c) make excuses like "we don't technically own all the land we manage/regulate" (d) spend 10x as much on electric car subsidies (or 100x as much on trains), as clearing dead trees. It's one thing to be foolish, it's another thing to do it with a megaphone.

Carpool lanes - These monstrosities cost California $2.5B+, to get a 20% capacity loss, which increases pollution, a decrease in carpooling, and 50%+ increased injuries (both accident frequency and severity). It turns out a high speed lane right next to a parking lot increases accidents and injury on entry/exit, and not allowing drivers to use the entire road only decreases traffic flow from optimum. Supporting them is anti-environment, anti-economics and anti-science.

Deepwater Horizon - This disaster was caused (or contributed to) by Environmentalism. By not allowing drilling in places like the near coasts, and frozen wastelands like ANWR, and so on, 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, and we paid the price.

Helmet Laws -
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What happens when people feel "safer"? It's called risk compensation (Peltzman effect), they often take bigger risks and do dumber/riskier things. Drivers around them 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 and most of all deters riding which can sometimes result in worse behaviors. What we know is that helmet laws saved some lives, and cost others -- but states taking that decision away from adults own the consequences of those actions.

Housing and Urban Development -
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HUD (Housing and urban development) has various programs that are meant to help low income and first time buyers into their own homes. Sounds great, right? Too many people can’t afford a house, so a little wealth redistribution ought to help them out? Yet, in many cases the opposite has happened. Here's my story about some of the negative and unintended consequences of HUD.

Hunting is conservation - Places that allow hunting have a vested (financial) interest in protecting wildlife, and the hunting licenses pay for that protection. In one of those not-shocking unintended consequences: hunters care about the outdoors, and pay a ton for access to forests and the tasty animals they take out. For licensing and through taxes/fees, they end up subsidizing state and national parks (according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, they pay for most). So places like California (and their intolerance towards guns and hunters), undercuts the public lands (State/National Parks) that their environmental extremists claim to love. Which shows they're either ignorant, or they just love telling other people what to do more than they care about the environment.

Laffer Curve -
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This is the brain-dead obvious idea that taxes have limits. At some point, if you tax people too much (and have rich social programs for non-workers), then at some point, people will stop working for the government, and go to mooching off of it: there are unintended consequences. Since it's obviously true with dozens of real-world examples, and it is common sense, many Democrats will claim it's been disproven or false. They might as well be denying the sky is blue, or the sun is bright.

Light Rail - In a vacuum, Light rail sounds great: trains are efficient, comfortable, and just fun. But we don't live in a vacuum. In the real world (a) they cost billions that could be better spent on roads/busses, so that hurts fares and the poor (b) they are less convenient than busses with fewer stops/routes means more time to get door-to-door (for most people) (c) more mass to stop and start, fewer riders and cutting through traffic (more traffic/idle time) results in more pollution (d) they pull riders from more efficient busses (not cars) and thus increase pollution even more. 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. Supporting them is anti-environment, anti-economics and anti-science.

Minimum Wage - Minimum wage is the delusion that bureaucrats and politicos know more about what's fair than the laborer and the employer, and that there's a magic round number that fair for everyone, everywhere, at the same time. We know that it hurts employment, increases automation and offshoring, and hurts the people it's supposed to help. Either these consequences are unintentional, or the politicians want to make the problem worse while pretending to help, so they have something to campaign on.

Peace dividend - If you think war is expensive, you should see what peace can cost. In Indochina the peaceniks wanted peace at any price, and for the U.S. to get out of Vietnam, despite multiple warnings by the CIA about what would happen (that South Asia would fall and the Marxists would exterminate/re-educate/expatriate the opposition). The peaceniks got their way, the benevolent communist people’s party got control, and the cost was >6 Million dead, and at least that many refugees driven from their homes, while the peaceniks have never apologized about what happened as a consequence of their "peace at any price".

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Prohibition - Prohibition increases scarcity (and the allure of doing something naughty). Scarcity increases value. Value creates black-market (crime). Crime creates more tolerance for authoritarianism. Which all result in less freedom, and more value in whatever is prohibited. Whether alcohol prohibition, the war on drugs, or gun control -- all the illegal items were available (often more so), and once outlawed there were LESS controls on who could buy and under what conditions.

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Recycling - Recycling is not the panacea that some think it is, it is about teaching the gullible to follow without question, while increasing pollution, waste, taxes, and government control over our lives. That's not conspiracy, these are just facts. But still the gullible trained proles follow out of ignorance or virtue signaling as a demonstration of symbolism over substance -- they put their agenda above science.

School Lunches - Democrats (Michelle Obama) decided to make socialized federal nutritional mandates ("Smarter Lunchrooms") as her cause, used debunked junk science to do it, and removed nutrition and flavor to the point where (a) kids ate fewer school lunches: lower utilization (b) threw more of it away: higher waste (c) and ate out of vending machines instead: ate worse. When Trump tried to fix it by allowing smarter states to opt-out, #resist States decided to sue to protest us from allowing anyone else to offer better choices for their students than they were.

Seatbelt Laws -
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A law is the point where you say, "people that don't agree with me, must be punished and have their rights taken away"... either with loss of property (fines/taxes), loss of freedom (imprisonment), or death (if they resist). With that in mind, now think of seatbelt laws: if you don't wear something that 80% of the time will help your safety, and 20% of the time will endanger it, we will steal your property, liberty or kill you... for your own good, of course. Does that sound like a good use of law or government authority? We know that the laws have resulted in people losing their cars, liberty or even life, either that was intended, or laws come with unintended costs.

Social Security - Instead of helping people to save for their retirement and creating a program where they owned what they saved, we created Social Security. That youth-tax Ponzi-scheme taught people to not plan for their future (trust government): turned people into dependents, and Americans savings went down. 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 - Johnson's "War on Poverty" had welfare as the front line. Welfare paid people to not work, not get married, and have/keep kids out of wedlock -- and it punished people that tried to get off of it. Shocker of shockers, you get what you incentivize, and welfare got more people to not work, have kids out of wedlock, and it hurt the kids, families, and society at large. Once trapped in programs hard to get out of, the dependency class resented the masses for not giving more, and the masses resented them back for being irresponsible: it drove the wedge between the classes far deeper and divided us more than ever before. Poverty, single parenthood, gangs and crime went UP tearing the fabric of society, despite trillions of dollars poured into it. But the important part is the left won the votes of the gullible (like Chickens voting for Colonel Sanders).


  • 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.
  • 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

And so on.

Conclusion

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.

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📚 References

Written: 1998.09.05 • Edited: 2010.05.20, 2016.02.05, 2019.07.01