Annamaria on Monday
Last summer Michael posted a blog called UnintendedConsequences, in which he cited a new South African law that was supposed to cut down on trafficking of young children, which had the unintended result of slicing into South Africa’s share of international tourism. I was intrigued. And being the nerd I am, I researched.
Lots of times it seems, good intentioned people trying to fix a problem end up creating another one.
But then there are the times when the curative action not only fails to solve the problem, but makes it worse. The term for this variety of unintended consequence is The Cobra Effect.
The name comes from a story about British colonial rule in India. During the Raj, the District Superintendent of Delhi was concerned about the number of venomous cobras in the city. He had a good idea. Put a bounty on them. Pay ordinary citizens for bringing in dead snakes. It worked. For a while.
But then, to keep the dead-snake payments coming in and to make them easier to earn, folks on periphery of the city started breeding cobras, killing them, and presenting them for the reward. Outraged at the “cheating,” the government cancelled the program. The breeders no longer had a use for the baby cobras, so they released them. In the end the number of cobras in Delhi was increased by several orders of magnitude.
Colonial governments seem to have been particularly guilty of this form of arrogance and superficial thinking. The French did the same thing in Vietnam—with the twist that their actions created the problem in the first place:
They wanted to change Hanoi into the Paris of the Southeast Asia. That meant more than broad boulevards, baguettes, and outdoor cafes. It meant indoor plumbing and of course, sewers. Those sewers became a fabulous breeding ground for rats. All too soon, the city was being overrun with them. They were coming up through the toilets in the European section of town. And at a time when the white population was terrified of bubonic plague. YIKES!
The government hired exterminators—employees whose job it was to go down into the sewers and kill rats. But the critters were so out of hand, the civil servants could not put a dent in their population. The rats were breeding like—well—rats. I guess Monsieur Le Frenchman-in-charge had not heard about the cobras in Delhi. He did what seemed logical to him—he put a bounty on rats. Payment was made for rat tails. You can guess I am sure what happened next—people were soon breeding rats. On top of which, people were not bothering to kill the rats they caught. They just cut off their tails. Tail-less rats evidently still remained attractive to the opposite sex. And reproduced. And so it went.
And so it goes. In 2007, the commandant of Fort Benning, Georgia had a different critter to deal with—wild pigs. If only he had Googled “unintended consequences,” he would have known what not to do.
Fort Benning is a huge place—bigger in geographical area than Atlanta. With lots of wooded areas where the piggies could hide out and breed. How cute! NOT! Here’s the thing about wild pigs—they dig up everything, they eat almost anything, they will chew what they can’t really eat. They were destroying government property for heaven’s sake. Kill them! Bring in their tails, and we will pay you $40 each for them. It took a while and a wildlife biologist to figure out why the piggy population then began to increase.
Oh, there were a few miscreants who bought tails from the local game butcher and turned them in. But that could not account for the ballooning numbers of pigs. Observers of nature know that what makes a wild species increase in numbers is a bigger food supply. Once they started looking for it, they found it. The hunters were putting out slops—tons of it—to attract the pigs and make them easy to find and slaughter. All that food not only made the local population more fecund.
Word got out to the porkers in the surrounding counties. There was free lunch at Fort Benning.
In addition to the Cobra Effect, there are some other fascinating and disgusting sub-categories of unintended consequences:
The worst example of a colonial governments’ stupidity is the brutish and heartbreaking Leopold II’s severed hand policy. In the Congo, the colonial wealth came from rubber production. Failure to meet quotas carried the death penalty. To prove that those who “shorted” the government had been executed, the overseers were required to turn in their severed hands. To prove how well they were complying, the soldiers went about randomly chopping off people’s hands, rather than working to increase production in a way that might actually work.
Blowback occurs when a government arms an ally, who then switches sides and joins the enemy. For example when the USA and Saudi Arabia supplied insurgents in Syria, only to have them join with Isis, taking the weaponry with them.
Campbell’s Law refers to using a social indicator to track progress, but then using the indicator makes progress worse. For instance, in recent years in the USA, the federal and state governments have sought to use student test scores as a measure of teacher effectiveness, only have teachers begin to teach students to be better test takers, rather than better educated people.
Perverse Incentives can turn a government program on its head. The US Endangered Species Act requires a study to be made to find out if a species is endangered by a project. But the studies take years, during which time proponents of the project build as fast as they can before what they want to do becomes against the law. My favorite example of this is how the prohibition of a substance drives up the price, making trade in whatever it is an extremely lucrative criminal activity.
On the lighter side, there is the Streisand Effect, named after Barbra, who became so incensed by people trying to photographs her house that she made everyone want to see a picture of it. Or the fatwa on Salman Rushdie that made The Satanic Verses, a book hardly anyone would have bought, an international bestseller of biblical proportions.
My next book focuses on Islam in East Africa in 1912. I may need you to prepare a priest hole for me. I am not sure what I should hope for in that regard.