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Unintended Consequences: Some Bad, Some Not So Bad



It is the nature of human decision making that no matter what course of considered action, there generally are some resulting unintended (and generally unforeseen) consequences. Steven Gillion suggests "You cannot always predict the results of purposeful action. Life is frequently too complicated and unpredictable, the universe too random, to bend to the will of any individual or group of individuals." Who could have foreseen the chain of events from Don Imus making his insensitive remark to New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine being badly injured in a car crash while on the way to hear Mr. Imus apologize to the Rutgers Women's basketball team?

The discussion of unintended consequences (UC) generally falls into two major categories:

  • Negative or perverse effect: This result gets the most attention since it is sometimes the most painful and dramatic. Examples include:
  • The introduction of rabbits to Australia for hunting and which lead to a virtual epidemic of uncontrolled population growth for the frisky fur balls.
  • Another example is the 1980's luxury tax on expensive yacht's that was intended to garner additional tax revenues from the wealthy. Instead the act almost decimated the US boating industry. Apparently no one in congress imagined that the rich could simply buy and keep their boats abroad.
  • Positive unexpected benefit: Not all unintended consequences are bad. In his book, That's Not What We Meant To Do, Steven Gillion gives two UC's that changed the world for the better:
  • In the 1920's Sir Alexander Fleming grew bacteria in a culture dish near an open window. This allowed mold spores to interfere with his experiment by killing the bacteria and launched the miracle of antibiotics.
  • The GI Bill after WWII was intended to ease the transition of soldiers into a peacetime economy avoiding the difficulties that occurred after WWI. However, the Bill provisions for educational subsidies along with mortgage assistance enabled a whole generation to become the educated and skilled workforce that launched decades of prosperity. We are still reaping the rewards from this historic social policy.

The specter of unintended consequences is not meant to scare one from making a decision but to keep us all humble and remind us that UC's will almost certainly occur. That is part of the decision making process. Live with it!

However, we should strive to explore and think through some possible UC's before we decide. This way we might be better prepared to anticipate and to deal with them. We can also monitor more closely the impact of our decisions to spot UC's as they begin to develop to enhance the positive UC's and to mitigate the negative ones.