Maybe kudzu can patch that broken window?
Just about every law, invention, treaty, and large-scale action has unintended consequences, which often alter society as a whole through a butterfly effect – like the ripples after a rock is thrown into a calm body of water.
The 19th Century French economist, Frederic Bastiat, warned of the dangers of unintended consequences in his classic essay That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen. He taught that, “in the department of economy, an act, a habit, an institution, a law, gives birth not only to an effect, but to a series of effects. Of these effects, the first only is immediate; it manifests itself simultaneously with its cause – it is seen. The others unfold in succession – they are not seen: it is well for us, if they are foreseen.”
It wasn’t until the 20th Century that American sociologist Robert Merton popularized the concept of unintended consequences and provided several possible causes: ignorance in that not every possible outcome can be anticipated, error from incorrect analysis, immediate interest that take priority over long term goals, basic values that prohibits certain outcomes, and self-defeating prophecy where well-meaning worrywarts attempt to fix a problem before it even comes to fruition.
If we focus only on the visible effects of a proposed policy, we may not recognize the invisible effects until the harm is done. How is it our policy makers seem so oblivious to the latent effects of choices supposedly made for society’s benefit?
Just a few infamous examples:
- Prohibition brought us bootleggers/gangsters and NASCAR (lest we all forget that moonshine runners were the originators of stock car racing!)
- Passing NAFTA decimated Mexico’s agriculture industry and crippled their economy, leading to the vast influx of illegal immigration to the US.
- The failed 1990s “War on Drugs” only served to solidify and consolidate the profitability of drug cartels.
- Rent controlled housing was meant to help secure housing for low-income tenants, but essentially created a drought of quality in housing for most major cities.
- Creating antibiotics saved millions, but now our bodies are unable to fight of “superbugs” that are resistant to our greatly outdated antibiotics
After undergrad (and in a former life) I worked in government relations and public policy for a medical non-profit in the DC-area. Fresh from a small town, I was completely content traipsing around the Capital for hearings, meetings, and the typical “schmooze fest” where every move made was well calculated and micromanaged in order to have the best odds at “winning.” Our goal was simple, pharmaceutical companies had long abandoned research and development on antibiotics (something you take for only a short period of time) for the more lucrative medical innovations like Viagra, breast implants, and medications that secure a life-time of use. Most antibiotics still used today were originally invented in the 40s and 50s, and for that reason the levels of antimicrobial resistance continues to skyrocket. The bill introduced to US Congress aimed to create a number of incentives for pharmaceutical companies, and urged them to abandon the bottom dollar in exchange for the common good. I organized lobby days, press briefings, trips to the CDC and pharmaceutical companies, and attended countless meetings with Congress and their limitless legislative assistants. Our initial support was huge – because you couldn’t deny the scientific evidence! Our thought was if you ran a facts-based campaign, how can anyone vote “nay”? As voting day arrived, I sat nervously waiting for the results. The bill was voted down. It didn’t just die… it was slaughtered, burned, tarred ‘n feathered! Over a year’s work was gone and I sat stunned, holding back tears. I started the job thinking that the opening theme of Mary Tyler Moore was my background music, yet here I sat with only a funeral dirge playing on repeat. My mentor, my boss, had been through this rodeo several times before. He merely shrugged and said, “Next time.” I stammered, “But why?” His response was simple, “Pharmaceutical companies are the top financial backers of the elections,” and re-elections were right around the corner. I was so disheartened and jaded by the process of our government; I left the job (perks and all) to find a new career path.
Let me go back for a second to Bastiat and the Broken Window Phallacy. The salient point is that destructive policies will destroy prosperity, regardless of the amount of “spin” that someone puts on the visible consequences. This short video does a great job of summarizing a highly debated theory:
It was almost two years later that my former boss contacted me out of the blue. A prominent congressman had lost a loved one to MRSA (the antimicrobial resistant strain of staphylococcus). He just so happened to be one of the early backers to our bill who appeared to thoroughly enjoy our lavish dinners and “legal donations,” yet ended up one of the turncoats that voted against us. He wrote my boss a cryptic letter that apologized for his “oversight.” He quoted Bastiat, and made sure to point out that he and many of his fellow senators had voted for their own immediate best interest. It wasn’t until that a “nasty little infection” affected his own life that he was able to say, “Oops, My bad.”
In some hypothetical alternate universe, our country would have an “Oops, My bad” list to save us from the bipartisan blame-game and come clean about negative unintended consequences. I’m pretty sure if the south has anything to say about this list… the US bringing Kudzu over from Japan would be near the top! This fast growing plant brought over to help with erosion has since created substantial environmental and fiscal consequences as the “Vine that ate the South.”
We teach our kids that it’s okay to make mistakes because it’s just part of the “growing pains” of life and meaning-making towards lessons learned and self-preservation. I would not only trust, but respect, my own government if they would just admit their own mistake. As Winston Churchill stated, “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”