How is it that, in doing our very best to achieve one thing, we can end up with the opposite result?
How is it that, in doing our very best to achieve one thing, we can end up achieving just the opposite?
There exists an unseen force with an unassuming name that conceals all manner of terrors. It is ‘Unintended Consequences’, and it takes our efforts to do the good and right thing, turns them to ashes and blows them back in our faces. Whether it be governments fighting a “War on Terror” only to bring their economies crashing about their ears, ecologists attempting to stamp out pests but making things ten times worse in the process, or giving people lots of choice only for them to make worse decisions, it is all too easy to start out with the best of intentions, only to end up doing more harm than good.
In Unintended Consequences, Clive Wills discusses national disasters, Prohibition and the War on Drugs, frustrated efforts to improve health and safety, and touches on issues of everyday life such as how to improve relationships and bring up children. As HL Mencken reflected, “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong”. This book examines the many ways in which those apparently simple solutions can turn around and bite us, and more importantly, just what we can do about it.
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....................In this highly readable, engaging and entertaining book, the author discusses many examples of unintended and almost by definition unforeseen consequences, many of which relate to government policy. Then there is also the important factor that any restrictive measure will engage human ingenuity in trying to get around it – a classic example discussed in some detail is the US prohibition on alcohol, and later on drugs. Another is the effects of the introduction of alien species such as rabbits and mongoose on local ecosystems. Then there are paradoxes of personal performance where conscious effort may in fact sabotage our results, as golfers know to their cost when it comes to putting. Sometimes, nudging can be the best policy when it comes to health interventions. On a practical personal level, it is good advice to consider the long-term repercussions of decisions and the assumptions that underlie them. There are many instructive cautionary tales here to give readers pause for thought. ~ David Lorimer, Paradigm Explorer
...........Clive Wills became fascinated by the subject of unintended consequences while studying economics, since when he has obtained a degree in philosophy and worked in business affairs in the music business. Now, he has written Unintended Consequences: or why do bad things happen to good decisions? an entertaining and well-crafted compendium of catastrophe....Wills examines the many ways in which apparently straightforward solutions can backfire –discussing a wide range of unexpected disasters — but he doesn’t leave the subject there. He suggests what we can do about it, exploring issues of everyday life, including how to improve relationships and bring up children. By examining a plethora of unintended consequences across all aspects of life, he hopes his study will help us to become more aware of their dangers and find ways to avoid them and achieve what we set out to do in the first place. As a major example of unintended consequences, Wills describes how, in attempting to defend the West after the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, the USA triggered a chain of events that resulted in the devastation of world economies in the financial crisis of 2008. He traces the cause to President George W Bush’s ‘Patriot Bonds’ which were used in the aftermath of 9/11 to fund the ‘War on Terror’. Their low interest rate set the value of the dollar falling, mortgages followed the interest rates down, leading to ‘sub-prime’ defaults, the collapse of the Lehman Brothers bank, and the banking crisis worldwide. And then there’s the ‘war on drugs’. The evidence is that this produced huge negative outcomes and collateral damage, including mass incarceration in the US, repressive policies in Asia, untold corruption and political destabilisation in Afghanistan and West Africa, appalling violence in South America, an HIV epidemic in Russia, a global shortage of pain medication and a spread of human rights abuses worldwide. Quite a list! What Wills calls ‘blowback’ — the tendency for best-laid plans to backfire — equates to Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion of the ‘Immanent Will’ which informed so much of the writing of the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840–1928) who believed in a blind, indifferent yet seemingly capricious force in the universe that determines the fates, and generally blights the lives, of everyone: in other words, what can go wrong will go wrong. For him, the sailing of the ‘Titanic’ was a prime example. Unintended consequences can also be said to bear a relation to that fundamental principle of economics, with which Wills is sure to be familiar: the law of diminishing returns. This states that there’s a point at which the degree of profits or benefits gained is less than the amount of money or energy invested — in other words, unintended consequences if a certain level of investment is exceeded. It strikes me, too, that unintended consequences must be an aspect of karma — a natural law of cause and effect which, in Hinduism and other Eastern religions, understands that every action or decision has a consequence that might not be apparent immediately. As passages in the Upanishads and the later Bhagavad Gita make clear, karma is about both judgement and education which are (or ought to be) essential components of any decision-making. Blowback has been a problem throughout history, Wills points out. For instance, more than a hundred years ago, when the British government was exploring ways of giving Ireland a degree of independence, many opposed the policy and the Ulster Volunteer Force grew to 90,000 members who received rifles from Germany. Then the First World War broke out and the Germans found their rifles turned on them by the UVF signing up ‘to a man’ to the British Army. Doubtless, the Covid-19 ‘lockdown’, introduced with the intention of saving lives and easing pressure on the health services, has had many unintended consequences. For one, there has been a sharp increase in domestic violence and, in Ireland at least, where I live, an increase in deaths in road accidents compared to last year as more drivers speed on less busy roads. Vexed Issue - In a section particularly relevant to the 2020 pandemic, Wills shows that overwhelming people with gloomy news — as the mainstream media generally has done during the coronavirus outbreak — can be counter-productive. Using the vexed issue of climate change as an example, he argues that people should not be presented as hopeless victims in such circumstances but portrayed rather as potential heroes, bad news being leavened with good. Incentives and rewards, meanwhile, can have their downsides in actually prolonging unacceptable behaviour, while too much choice — as in the proliferation of supermarket brands — can become a burden and bring its own challenges to decision-making. But on the plus side, Wills also discusses unlooked-for benefits when good intentions bring about beneficial side-effects, and serendipity, when we stumble across something advantageous that we weren’t looking for at all. In conclusion, Wills hopes that his readers will feel equipped and ready to do battle against the foe of unintended consequences: ‘Thinking before reacting, making sure you have the right information, not making assumptions, being ready to nudge rather than cajole, keen to emphasise the good rather than the bad, ready to experiment and quite prepared to do nothing when the need arises.’ A final thought: Wills’ book is well-researched and draws in the reader cumulatively, from chapter to chapter, but it does not address the important issue of infinite regress. Where does one stop in looking for the cause of an event, unintended or otherwise? Once you’ve found what you think is the cause, you start wondering about the cause of that, and then the cause of that cause, and so on, ad infinitum. One could say that an unintended consequence of the birth of Jesus Christ was child abuse inflicted by Catholic clergy 2,000 years later — so shouldn’t any perceived unintended consequence have to be validated against a rigorously finite retrospective timeline of cause? ~ Geoff Ward, Medium.Com
"An excellent book". "Very amusingly and lucidly written on a subject which we tend to overlook" ~ Professor Sir Richard Sorabji , email