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The consequences of unintended consequences

January 31st, 2011 Posted in freedom, Government, Liberal Philosophy, Policy by

Policy makers often refer to the potential of unintended consequences when debating new legislation or regulation. Politicians from all political parties seem to realise that whatever you do something will then happen that is unexpected.

If we start to think about policy through the prism of the unintended, then our recent political history makes a lot more sense. Someone comes up with a brilliant solution to a problem, a majority back it, it is enacted and a little later a new problem pops up because of the solution to the first problem. A new solution then needs to be developed to deal with this unintended consequence.

There are different ways to respond to this.

Governments could try and gather together the best brains in order to ensure that every possible outcome is worked out. Arguably, this approach is already being done and yet we still seem to be unable to avoid problems coming from solutions.

Another option is to accept that this is simply part of political life. There will always be unintended consequences so one might as well be stoical about it and just find a new solution.

One of the issues is that policy changes can impact on a lot of people. If that impact is negative it will take a lot of resource to solve the problem. Not only that, but ethically one might ask what right do policy makers have to affect people’s lives in this way?

There is another path to take. If you step back and let people work out the solutions by relying on the wisdom of the crowd, you are likely to arrive at solutions that everyone thinks are workable. This is because ways of doing things emerge through co-operation and experimentation. Another way to describe this is spontaneous order.

The other advantage is that when lots of people try different things and one experiment has negative effects it is not going to impact on everyone, just the ones who are engaged with that particular solution.

The great thing about this approach is that policy makers don’t need to rush off and come up with a framework that enables this activity. We already have one: the free market. And where we think the market isn’t appropriate we can always disperse power to people.

4 Responses to “The consequences of unintended consequences”

  1. Policy Wonk Says:

    Unintended consequences simply part of political life? A very generous judgment on policy-making in the UK, which more often than not is hobbled by poor political calls. Either policy is directed by a minister’s cock-eyed big idea, or constrained within a political (not often ideological – it’s seldom as coherent as that) framework that prevents it from working as it should. Evidence and experts are ignored, and the whole thing comes up again, five to ten years later, to be bodged a second, third, fourth time. From drugs policy to benefits, Iraq to taxation, that’s how we make policy in this country. Even when a consequence is unintended, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t foreseen – very often, it was but foreseen but ignored for (directly or indirectly) political reasons.

    If politics generally can start to bend to the wisdom of the crowd, and not media pressure, blank-minded prejudice and partisan self-interest, maybe our policy-making will improve. Or maybe we can just start looking at the evidence and listening to the policy wonks, who generally do know what they’re talking about, for a change.


  2. Chris Says:

    “Governments could try and gather together the best brains in order to ensure that every possible outcome is worked out. Arguably, this approach is already being done and yet we still seem to be unable to avoid problems coming from solutions.”
    Surely this has never been done! What they do is to gather together the best ‘experts’, each of whom have an axe to grind on behalf of their sponsors, and propose further extensions to their already failed proposal. Think of the smoking ban where opinion is restricted by ‘international agreement(?’)to those employed in Tobacco Control and any damage to the pub trade and community cohesion, failure to reduce smoking rates or coronary admittance to hospital and increased less-controlled drinking etc. are all denied as they insist on further controls.
    Who are the best brains when considering drink, obesity and drugs? Are they independent or do their jobs and scholarly studies depend on providing the required ammunition.

    ” If you step back and let people work out the solutions by relying on the wisdom of the crowd, you are likely to arrive at solutions that everyone thinks are workable.”
    Surely pubs were an answer created from ‘the wisdom of the crowd’ providing a place where less desirable adult activities were provided within four walls – smokers were not put outside on public display, social pressure encouraged drinkers, especially the young, to control their drinking and few people were encouraged to eat overly rich food and drink wine by the bottle(s) away from their home.


  3. Simon Goldie Says:

    Chris

    When I mentioned the best brains I was thinking of the Civil Service. My point is that there are some very clever people who develop policy but as Hayek points out, however smart you are you can’t know everything.

    On your second point, you rather make the point I was arguing.

    Simon


  4. Chris Says:

    Simon

    I take your point about the Civil Service brains and am constantly disappointed that my ‘experts’ usually seem to override them to steer policies.
    As for my second point, pubs were an answer from the people but, like many successful creations, took a long time to mature. They were not imposed from above by a time controlled statute.
    It is sad that those who wish to impose change always consider the whole of a current situation as a problem rather than acknowledging any of the good that comes from existing provisions.
    Just to add a little meat to the above statement — I taught in an East London Secondary Modern School for Boys without a Nationally imposed curriculum. We only hear of Sec Mods as being failed schools and ignore that fact that many of their so-called condemned pupils made successes of their lives. Friends Reunited shows many of my ex-pupils are in prominent positions in American companies, running their own businesses or even enjoying fame as television presenters and international sportsmen. Others simply seem to be happy citizens.


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