The law of unintended consequences is an adage or idiomatic warning that an intervention in a complex system always creates unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes. Akin to Murphy’s Law, it is commonly used as a wry or humorous warning against the hubristic belief that humans can fully control the world around them. Many scientific and sociological fields of study embrace this concept,
Unintended consequences can be roughly grouped into three types:
- a positive, unexpected benefit (usually referred to as serendipity or a windfall)
- a negative, unexpected detriment occurring in addition to the desired effect of the policy (e.g., while irrigation schemes provide people with water for agriculture, they can increase waterborne diseases that have devastating health effects, such as schistosomiasis)
- a perverse effect that is contrary to what was originally intended (e.g., when an intended solution of a problem actually makes the problem worse). This situation can arise when a policy has a perverse incentive that causes actions contrary to those which were desired. Source
One example of unintended consequence is the debate regarding the gun registry in Canada. Whether the registry lives or dies will have no impact whatsoever on the vast majority of Canadians, and scarcely more on the minority that pay it close attention. Take the cost, first. It is certainly true that the costs of setting up the registry were substantial, and outrageous. If the issue were whether it was worth spending $2 billion just to draw up a list, not of handguns or newly purchased rifles, but of the rifles people already owned, I doubt there’d be many takers.
But the registry has been set up. The $2 billion is a sunk cost: it’s gone, and nothing we can do will get it back. The relevant factor in any decision we make now is not what we paid in the past but what we’ll have to pay from here on, that is, the annual cost of maintaining the registry, which the RCMP informs us is less than $4 million a year. Not terribly costly and not terribly intrusive either: as its defenders point out, we are obliged to register many other of our possessions, most of them far less capable of havoc than a gun. Source
And guess what ! Acquiring a firearm would still mean sending a photograph verified by a friend, along with two character references from someone who’s known you for three years or more. Background checks? Still required. Phone numbers so your spouses can be notified that you’re getting a gun license? All of that detailed personal information would live on in the existing electronic database, along with registration data for restricted weapons like handguns, where it will be at the fingertips of police attending complaints or investigating crimes. That may come as a surprise to the farmer who thought the government was about to leave him alone with his rusty 22. The gun registry is about to become a registry of gun owners.
All of which invites a question: if getting rid of the registry would leave the most invasive components of the gun-control system in place—and if it leaves most safeguards for public security in place too—exactly what is this fight about? Beats me. Source
Getting back to unintended consequences, the debate over long gun registration has brought out an interesting new political dynamic in Canada, one that should concern firearms owners. An Angus Reid poll has revealed a large increase in the percentage of Canadians who think that owning firearms of any kind should be illegal. Not just handguns, mind you, a ban on all firearms.According to the poll, 49 per cent of Canadians now support a complete ban on handguns, up from 46 per cent last November.
What is more surprising is that, in a different question on the poll, the number who would make all firearms illegal is now up to 45 per cent, versus only 40 per cent who would keep ownership legal and 15 per cent unsure. Making it illegal to own long guns, an extreme position, appears to be the more popular view. Despite efforts in the political debate to make a distinction between long guns and other types of guns, this distinction is no longer present in the mind of Canadians who participated in their surveys. The old opinion that handguns should be prohibited but long guns are OK no longer exists.
From a political point of view, it means that a complete ban on firearms could have majority support. No political party is taking that position yet, but the polarization of the debate makes it a politically tempting target.
So you may ask why has the middle ground vanished, the people who don’t own a firearm but don’t mind that others do? It could be that the registry, whatever its true effectiveness, to gives them confidence that guns were “under control”, but when they are told that it is ineffective they conclude that stronger measures are needed. Telling urban Canadians that gun owners won’t register their weapons, that police are no safer and can’t trace guns, and that keeping track of guns is a lost cause might just convince them that allowing ownership with some restrictions is not working out.
It could be that the success of the registry was the only thing that kept support for a complete ban at bay. Source
So the irony is getting rid of the registry may end up with strong public opinion supporting the ban in guns. Clearly an unintended consequence.
Another unintended consequence is professor evaluations at universities. In the United States, a newsmagazine reports that college students are attending so few classes that one institution is now tracking their attendance electronically. An accompanying image shows students floating in a campus pool watching television.
It gets worse. A new comprehensive study by two professors in California found that students at four-year colleges in 1961 studied 24 hours a week. Today they study just 14 hours.
The reasons are part-time jobs (often to pay for those fancy “minimum-wage coffees”) and the Internet (though most of the erosion came in the 1980s). The rule of thumb had been that for every hour in class, two should be spent studying. That is no longer so. One reason is said to be the growing power of students — through teacher evaluations and their importance in winning tenure — and the reluctance of professors to challenge them.
This doesn’t make students less smart today. But they are less ready for the world than their parents. Employers are learning this painfully. The head of a large mutual fund allowed the other day that he had recently let go an eager, promising graduate with a good résumé. After a few days on the job, it became clear that the young man couldn’t write an English sentence. Source
So what do we have? Clearly when universities introduced professor evaluations I doubt that they anticipated that this would lead to students using these evaluations as a lever to intimidate professors. But this seems to be another unintended consequence.
Let me know if you are aware of other unintended consequence scenarios.