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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Unintended Consequences

The possibility of "Unintended Consequences" is often used as an argument against instituting a government policy or taking various actions in the private arena. And certainly it's something to consider as sometimes the unintended consequences are truly terrible (though in this particular example, the terrible consequences, while clearly unintended, could have been foreseen).

But I think the unintended consequence argument is used far too often. If we all refused to take any action because of potential unintended consequences, it would paralyze society. I could use unintended consequences to argue that I should never leave the house. It could be that when I open the door to leave I spook a mouse and that causes a cat to jump which causes a bird to flutter upwards and land on the tree branch above my door which, due to the extra weight of the bird, breaks off of the tree and falls on my head and kills me instantly. Or something like that.

The resulting paralysis of society from using the unintended consequences argument too often would be an unintended consequence of deploying the unintended consequences argument. That also could have been foreseen.


Oroborous said...

Yeah, the real test isn't if there are unintended consequences, it's if the consequences are perceived, and if the behavior or policy is then modified.

From that perspective, there's good reason to be at least a bit wary of establishing gov't policy, since changing the policy can be harder than implementing it in the first place.

David said...

That is such a classic consequence that it can't count as unforeseen even if the actual redeemers did not, in fact, foresee it.

I suspect that the donors were out to feel good and get their kick from doing something and not from doing something effective. What the administrators' story is, I can't even imagine.

Bret said...

Given that the whole project sounds like a rather Leftist endeavor, it would of course been unforeseen since incentives don't matter according to those on the Left.