THE “Law of Unintended Consequences”, like gravity, constantly affects everything. It’s where we do one thing, hoping for a good outcome, but find (even if that good outcome is achieved) that it also causes less desirable results. The warning, “never gamble more than you’re prepared to lose” is a good example. This reflects the fact that you are far more likely to lose a punt than you are to profit from it; that’s why they were able to build the Opera House off the back of one series of lotteries and why your bookie drives a Beemer while you tootle around in a Yaris. It’s not your “intention” to back a loser, but you need to know you probably will.
The US Volstead Act (commonly called “Prohibition”) certainly had good intentions – the main one being sobriety – but the Mob broke out the champers and celebrated the second it was enacted because it opened up for them a new line of business that was lucrative beyond their wildest dreams: selling grog to nigh-on everyone. The fact that a lot of the new product consisted of diluted metho and some tea for colour also meant (another consequence) that it tended to kill people a lot more efficiently than the old, legal hooch ever did. Similarly, the criminal classes also tended to kill a lot more of each other and innocent by-standers once they started squabbling over who had the right to make the most money.
That’s three fairly drastic unintended consequences from just one example but doesn’t mean that every time we do something, it’s going to be that lethal. Most would assume that drugs should remain illegal even though they too have spawned the world’s richest criminal industry because the alternative (legalisation) is just plain unthinkable – ironically being the policy of a proudly illogical Australian political party.
New laws making codeine pain relief available only on prescription will have unintended consequences. Queues at the quack will, of course, become longer but, more alarmingly, people who choose not to get a prescription for stronger codeine-based relief will simply take double or triple the normal dose of paracetamol – wave your liver goodbye if you think that’s a good outcome.
Another recent example: Wagga’s mayor has mooted a crying need to double the number of meetings from monthly to fortnightly (which is actually more than double, there being 26 fortnights but only 12 months) which is undoubtedly well intentioned and may even provide desirable outcomes.
However, given that councillors currently receive a stipend which is not a “wage” but a reimbursement of some sort for expenses incurred in doing the job, should we not also foresee an unintended consequence that they would logically need a pay-rise (anything up to double, one assumes) for doing double the amount of time?
That’s not to say that the idea should be cursorily knocked on the head: it may be that we think it well worth the extra cost; or another schedule might provide a compromise “improvement”. It’s just that since we know that unintended consequences always occur, we should consider what they might be before we jump in and enthusiastically hail the prodigy and genius of the suggestion – as has already occurred – and at least try to assess whether the bugs outweigh the brilliance.
There’s no point in getting all depressed or jittery about unintended consequences, mainly because – as Confucius pointed out – even “doing nothing” also constitutes an action with consequences.