Murphy was an optimist. -- Unknown
It has always seem to me that there is another law of this universe -- as solid as the Law of Gravity -- mandating that whenever any action is taken or any decision is made, there will be consequences opposite to the desired results. In these times of almost universal shirking of responsibility -- not entirely monopolized by politicians -- we often hear this phenomenon referred to as "unintended consequences" or maybe "unanticipated consequences". But the problem is bigger than that and for most thinking/responsible people, the possible negative consequences of an action are at least partially known or expected. It's just that much of the time, there is not much you can do about it.
What am I talking about? Let me give you a few examples.
One of the miracles of these modern times is that antibiotics have resulted in routine recoveries from diseases that a half-century ago would have been disastrous. So the thing to do is to stuff a handful of these things down your gullet every time you feel slightly ill. Whoops -- the doctors advise us not to do that. They tell us that many of the bugs that make humans and other animals ill are now becoming immune to the effectiveness of antibiotics. They tell us that we best avoid taking them unless we really have to and then we must take a massive amount. It could very well be that this wonder of science we have been enjoying for over 50 years may not be around forever -- it may be a transient phenomenon.
Why not -- the Mexicans don't seem to have a problem? Well it appears that our efforts to make sure that we are never exposed to germs may work to our disadvantage in the long run. It is well known that if a child were raised in an absolutely sterile environment, she would probably get very ill and likely die once exposed to the real, non-sterile world.
The reason drinking purified water and eating sterile food could be to our disadvantage in the long run is that if a major disaster happened, man-made or natural, in which a significant part of the population was suddenly exposed to an environment in which they had to eat, drink, and breathe in a far less sterile environment, many of us would likely die.
So, while it is a very campy thing to be lugging a bottle of pure water with you at all times (I saw some winner of an Academy Award carrying one on stage at the ceremonies last year!), it is likely harmful to us in the long run.
The obvious approach was to give money, food and things to those who were below some artificial "poverty level". Obvious but wrong. Anyone who has ever had any experience with raising children or animals knows that this approach absolutely will not work. Yes, I know, that actually helping the poor was not the real intent of most politicians, but nevertheless, it does illustrate the problem. See Irving Kristol's, The Best of Intentions, the Worst of Results.
And, of course, the insane "War on Drugs" is an even worse disaster.
I'm not an economist but I think it is obvious that if we all starting saving money in large amounts, which would seem a good thing to do for the individual saver, the economy would suffer. Spending is apparently an essential component of the luxurious life style we enjoy in the major industrialized countries.
In these modern times as labor saving devices have been introduced at an ever increasing rate, it appeared that utopia had arrived. We would never have to tire a muscle again. Unfortunately, it immediately became evident that the lack of any physical work to do caused us to get fat and lazy and created a host of medical problems. Sadly, instead of chunking any of these devices, we have tried with limited success to force ourselves to do periodic exercise. That solution has not been outstandingly successful! At least for me. . .
We'll show 'em -- we don't need no Middle East oil! Right. There's only one big problem (and several little ones); "It takes more fossil-fuel energy to produce a gallon of fuel-grade ethanol than burning it will produce", according to scientists.
But is this a universal law like the law of gravity or is it just something that results from lazy, irresponsible, unthinking, humans being involved? I'm afraid it is universal and ubiquitous. To offer some evidence of that, let us take a look at dealing with inanimate, or at least non-human, objects first. Surely they don't fight back -- or do they.
Futurists had not reckoned with the perversity of ordinary objects and systems. -- Edward Tenner
Several years ago when I first started thinking about this puzzle, I looked for books on the subject. Surely I was not the only one who had observed this curious law of nature. I found an excellent book on the subject by Edward Tenner, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996). A review of the book by Douglas Merrill can be found at CAP. Curiously, Chapter 5 is online at the Business Week site, with no mention of Tenner's name or the name of the book! "Tennis and the Revenge of Technological Revolution", another excerpt, is also online. I would encourage you to consult Tenner's book on the technological issues discussed here.
Following Healy in his essay mentioned above, I would like to broaden the definition of technology (which Healy attributes to James Beniger in The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1986):
"...that which can be done, excluding only those capabilities that occur naturally in living systems."Basically, what we are talking about are actions by humans -- generally falling outside the category, "naturally in living systems". A good example would be the requirement that businesses hire people based on race or gender and not based primarily on desirability or ability, i.e., the "quota system". It is unnatural and has negative consequences.
Let us take a more detailed look at a couple of prime examples of technology being stubborn: the medical system and computerization.
The medical system mess will serve to illustrate the concepts for the nasty consequences that crop up in several ways. Let us look at a few.
What doesn't kill them makes them stronger. - an old saw
To get your attention, I would like to quote from a Scientific American article, "The Challenge of Antibiotic Resistance", by Stuart B. Levy, March 1998:
Worldwide, many strains of Staphylococcus aureus are already resistant to all antibiotics except vancomycin. Emergence of forms lacking sensitivity to vancomycin signifies that variants untreatable by every known antibiotic are on their way. S. aureus, a major cause of hospital-acquired infections, has thus moved one step closer to becoming an unstoppable killer.
The looming threat of incurable S. aureus is just the latest twist in an international public health nightmare: increasing bacterial resistance to many antibiotics that once cured bacterial diseases readily. Ever since antibiotics became widely available in the 1940s, they have been hailed as miracle drugs -- magic bullets able to eliminate bacteria without doing much harm to the cells of treated individuals. Yet with each passing decade, bacteria that defy not only single but also multiple antibiotics -- and therefore are extremely difficult to control -- have become increasingly common.
What is more, strains of at least three bacterial species capable of causing life-threatening illnesses: Enterococcus faecalis, Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Pseudomonas aeruginosa already evade every antibiotic in the clinicianís armamentarium, a stockpile of more than 100 drugs. In part because of the rise in resistance to antibiotics, the death rates for some communicable diseases (such as tuberculosis) have started to rise again, after having declined in the industrial nations.
According to Tenner, Alexander Fleming, an early penicillin researcher, said in 1945 that penicillin, "freely taken, an oral form of the drug would select mutant strains with walls resistant to the drug." His advice was largely ignored and today we have serious consequences.
Until recent times, feed and water for farm animals was routinely doped with antibiotics to keep them healthy. Now, it turns out, we are paying the consequences. Now the World Health Organization (WHO) advises:
Humans are building up dangerous levels of resistance to modern antibiotics that could leave them vulnerable to killer diseases, the U.N. World Health Organization said on Tuesday.
Farmers who use antibiotics to fatten up livestock and poultry are aggravating the problem because microbes on animals build up defenses against the drugs, then jump across the food chain and attack human immune systems, WHO said. The world health body said tuberculosis strains in several countries had become resistant to two of the most effective drugs and some antimalarial medicines had become practically useless as parasites adapted their defenses.
Often with "nasty consequences", we have a trade off between short term and long term. Short term is often positive and long term is negative. In this case, it appears that long term is a disaster.
An extensive resource for the study of this problem is located at the UC Davis web site on the page, "ANTIBIOTICS: Friend or Foe?"
A very similar phenomenon has occurred with pesticides and herbicides used in agriculture, which I don't have the space to discuss in detail. It is sufficient to say that both insects and weeds are becoming immune to the "unnatural efforts" of the farmers to eradicate them. An even greater disaster are the actions of governments (usually) to bring in a foreign "beneficial" insect or plant to control or eliminate an existing undesirable situation or organism. The unanticipated consequences have been disastrous in many cases! (for an example, see "VIRGINIAíS BIG STINK: CONTROLLING AILANTHUS")
This is another huge "gotcha" in the medical/health field. The crux of the problem is third party payment. Whether I have insurance or government sponsored care, it doesn't matter when it comes to how I decide how much medical care I want. Which is -- I want to maximize my own welfare. No, I don't care what it costs -- for someone else is paying. What I care about is my health and well-being. Yes, I will take all the expensive tests that might alleviate my problem.
There is no incentive for me to do otherwise! So, as new tests and technologies are made available, we all will chose them if our health is at stake. The costs will increase.
In conjunction with this is the incentive for the medical industry to continue to develop better treatments and devices. Generally these will come at a higher price. If a better procedure or device is available, they will be used! The costs of medical care will continue to increase.
For a possible solution to this one, see Brink Lindsey's article, "PATIENT POWER: THE CATO INSTITUTE'S PLAN FOR HEALTH CARE REFORM". Apparently HMOs are not a solution.
The list of "undesirable consequences" resulting from medical technology goes on and on -- far too extensive to list here in this introductory article.
One more example of a common technology that is "biting back" is computerization.
The computerization of our society provides numerous examples of undesired consequences and one in which Tenner devotes a couple of chapters to. I will just mention one of the surprising results and that is the unexpected lack of productivity increase (see Tenner, Chapters 8 and 9).
Government was the first to computerize extensively and since much of the massive record keeping that they do is very appropriate to computerization we would have expected layoffs in the millions by now. It hasn't happened. In spite of the fact that computers allow the system to be 10 or 100 times more efficient, "productivity" or "efficiency" has remained about the same.
The same has occurred in big business, banks, etc. It might surprise you to know that, for example, before computerization, the large banks of New York had tens of thousands of customers and processed many thousands of checks every day (written on a variety of forms, including backs of envelopes!) completely manually. Today if you went in a bank and asked a bank officer to tell you what the payoff on your loan is, she couldn't tell you if the computer happened to be down at the moment (I know, this happened to me).
In general, productivity has not improved and in some aspects has gotten worse (for example, paper usage has actually increased in our "paperless" office environments!). See Tenner's book for an extended discussion of this prime example of "technological contrariness". An online paper, "MEGATRENDS OR MEGAMISTAKES? What Ever Happened to the Information Society?" is available here.
Civilization is a limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities. ó Mark Twain
When a rule or law is made and invoked, we see that unintended consequences result almost without exception. One solution to this problem -- a solution favored by politicians and other of the ignorant persuasion -- is to add additional rules or laws to correct or remove the unintended consequences. Of course, this just compounds the problem, adding new unintended consequences, often in excess or worse than the original ones.
Most of us have experienced this problem when we take our car to the auto repair shop (or worse, take our bodies to the physicians). A couple of years back, I bought a new Chevy SUV that I found, after a few days in my garage, had a minor oil leak. I reluctantly took it in to get repaired. To fix the oil leak, they removed the engine. When I got it back, I had an A/C system that didn't work and a horn that worked when I didn't want it to. Oh, and by the way, I still had the oil leak.
But the best demonstration of this phenomenon is the growth of income tax regulations. The size of the regulations has grown exponentially (the income tax code is now over 17,000 pages of fine print - 5.5 million words, according to a "Super Citizen" article) primarily in response to the governments efforts to correct previous "unintended consequences".
I believe that if I were considerably more mathematically inclined, I could prove that this always happens with complex systems -- that is, the system gets more complex as a result of efforts to fix the previous complexities. So, while I can't prove it, I believe it to be so.
. . . uninstructed legislators have in past times continually increased human suffering in their endeavours to mitigate it. . . -- Herbert Spencer, "The Sins of Legislators"
The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern. -- Lord Acton
While we recognize that when politicians lament the "unintended consequences" of their last action, that they could very well be just blowing smoke. Still they really are subject to the same "law of unintended consequences" as the rest of us. Sticking with the theme of this essay, then, I would like to look at some of the political consequences that resulted not necessarily from the usual disingenuous political motives (lust for votes, money, power, and etc.) but from fundamental difficulties.
The first issue that comes to mind is government itself. If we imagine for a moment that we are a free, ungoverned people, such as the Native Americans were before the Europeans brought "civilization", and we further imagine that we need to have a government (for it appears to be the only solution to some of the "public goods" problems), what would be the consequences? Well, first off, we will have to give this "government" a monopoly over force, with the power to make us all comply with rules and laws. A major problem immediately raises its head: where are the human beings that are honest, intelligent, responsible, and generally fit to govern the rest of us?
The consequences of that problem, some would say, outweigh the original problems of being ungoverned.
A related example of perverse consequences associated from an effort to do a good thing was the incorporation of the "Bill of Rights" in our Constitution. Some of the Founding Fathers, particularly Hamilton (see Federalist #84), were fearful that by defining specific rights for the citizens, the government could assume that the citizens had no other rights. Well, Hamilton lost -- the Bill of Rights was attached and it now appears, at least to some of us, that it possibly was a mistake.
Those problems are rather academic for we do have a government and it is likely to stay that way. Then let me give an example of a problem of governance.
A good one is the raft of welfare programs. We agree that if there is to be government handouts, they ought to go to the really needy and not to the affluent. But trouble lurks over the next decision hill. First off we have to arbitrarily decide who is "needy", a decision fraught with all kinds of inequities in itself. But given that, our next problem is that we have now built an incentive to stay "needy". The most obvious example of this result is the criteria for giving handouts to mothers based on the family being fatherless. This, of course, resulted in the destruction of families in the poorer classes and an enormous increase in the percentage of unwed mothers.
A related problem is the issue of the government solution to abused children and abused animals. The cure may be worse than the original problem because these agencies that were created to "solve" these problems, are now mostly dedicated to insuring their own survival. In so doing, children and animals are cruelly taken from their homes for a host of trumped up reasons -- in order to keep the work flowing. Jobs are at stake and jobs are a heck of a lot more important to these bureaucrats than a destroyed life here and there!
Deitrich D–rner in his book, The Logic of Failure sums up the situation very well: "[I]t is far from clear whether 'good intentions plus stupidity' or 'evil intentions plus intelligence' have wrought more harm in the world."
How to deal with these political "unintended consequences" is not only beyond the capabilities of the people we elect to govern us but is also far beyond the scope of this essay!
Now for a totally unrelated example, let us consider the issue of justice for the accused. It would seem that the intelligent thing to do is to have a professional judge or judges to make decisions over criminal cases. For the intricacies of law, determining the intent of the accused, the environment in which the infraction occurred, etc. are far too complex for the average citizen (see "Trial by Jury vs. Trial by Judge"). So why don't we do that? Well, because we can't trust the people that somehow worm their way into judgeships. So, we decide that people ought to have the right to a jury of their peers.
But there are consequences -- severe consequences. Juries are notoriously ill prepared to make these complex decisions in law; they are easily swayed by shyster lawyers, and they have their own selfish motives that effect their decisions. It would be hard to say which of the two methods is the worse for society.
One final example of the "law of negative consequences" in the political arena and that is the problem of getting elected. I once had a conversation with an acquaintance that was running for political office about some of the abusive tactics of our government in the "War on Drugs". I asked why, if he was opposed to such tactics, didn't he take a stand against these abusive tactics and laws. He said he was opposed but to take a stand would mean he would not be elected. I said, "So?" Then he said, "Leon, I will not be able to do much in correcting these ills unless I am first elected."
OK, this is a well-known problem -- apparently, you have to lie to get elected. Or, to put it another way, to tell the truth results in severe "unintended consequences".
Political philosophy that emphasizes conserving as much as possible of the present economic, social, and political order. -- From the Greek Catalog: Philosophy
A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from a liberal, who wishes to replace them with others. -- Ambrose Bierce
This article would not be complete without mentioning the philosophy of Conservatism, of which its very foundation is based on the belief that "change is dangerous" and should be avoided if possible.
If what I am saying here has any validity, then the concept of conservatism would seem to be well founded. In the examples and concepts I have presented, we see that change of any kind is dangerous and complex. We see that it is not unusual for negatives consequences to exceed the positive consequences, or at least be almost equal. Given that, a rational person would avoid change unless the proposed change was thoroughly investigated for all possible consequences.Edmund Burke, who is regarded by many as being the "Father of Conservatism", said this:
"Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite he placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot he free. Their passions forge their fetters."ó National Assembly (IV. 319) [emphasis mine]
The discussion of Burke's philosophy in the book, The Rhetoric of Reaction, by Albert O. Hirschman, includes the statement:
Attempts to reach for liberty will make society sink into slavery, the quest of democracy will produce oligarchy and tyranny, and social welfare programs will create more, rather than less, poverty. Everything backfires.The author, Albert O. Hirschman, states that this theme was a common belief of historians and philosophers of the eighteenth century. The example of the French Revolution confirmed this belief to many.
Every action in our lives touches on some chord that will vibrate in eternity. ó Unknown
Any decision beyond the most insignificant will have a variety of consequences. We humans have at least two major problems with that. 1) We grossly underestimate the complexity of most situations and the impact of an "unnatural" change. And 2) we tend to see life in terms of absolutes and not in terms of marginal changes as it really is.
Yes, it appears that "Murphy's Law" and the subject at hand, the "Law of Unintended Consequences" result mostly from the inability of humans to comprehend the complexity of the results from the most trivial of decisions. And even if we could, the study of "chaos theory" seems to say that some results would be unpredictable no matter how much you know. Of course, that doesn't stop people from continuing to make decisions as if the desired consequence would be the only result. This is particularly true of the government where, for example, they still spend billions on weather forecasting when "chaos theory" insists that it will never work!
We are not conditioned to think "marginally". We should be. For if we really evaluated all of the consequences of specific decisions and evaluated the net change from the present situation, we would find that the net total change from the existing state is not likely to be much at all and may even be negative for most of the decisions we make.
An appreciation of the extraordinary complexities involved with the simplest of actions would benefit all of us but in particular, our politicians. For example, the invasion of other countries and/or forcing a new government and culture on them is sure to result in an abundance of "unintended consequences", but exactly what and how bad, we haven't a clue. A study of history would help but apparently our leaders are not big fans of history.
I close with the best example of the "Law of Unintended Consequences" and that is the tradeoff between freedom and state protection. Since we as a nation, have somehow (and I don't remember it being discussed, actually) decided that we must have more "security", then we must be prepared to accept the "unintended consequence" of less freedom. Maybe we ought to run the numbers on that calculation one more time before we are locked in with that decision!
S. Leon Felkins, Major, US Army (Ret)
|Mr. Felkins is a retired former military officer, college professor, and computer systems engineer. He is now an activist in the fight for the reform of the forfeiture laws now plaguing the US and the world. He is presently serving as the Executive Director of F.E.A.R., the forfeiture reform advocacy group. In addition, he maintains a web page on Political Philosophy, "A Rational Life" and another on the history of politics, "The Political Almanac". Email is welcome.|