Thursday, August 13, 2015

Unintended Consequences

The Law of Unintended Consequences states - roughly - that when we tinker with a system, things will happen that we do not expect and often don't like. As a rather trivial example, I recently decided that it would be sensible to cap my data usage with my service provider.  The reason for this is that once I've reached my 5 Gigabyte limit, I start paying something like 15 US cents per Megabyte.  This rapidly runs into hundreds of dollars.  I have the bank overdrafts to prove it.  On the other hand, if one knows that one needs more data than the allowed amount, one can buy a "bundle" for much less money - say $10 a Gigabyte. The unintended consequence of this decision is that I've had no data at all for the last week.  The reasons are boring and relate to the vagaries of my service provider, but the point is that I certainly didn't want or expect that to happen!

Robert Merton is credited with formalizing the concept in a paper in 1936. He listed the following points:
  1. Ignorance, making it impossible to anticipate everything, thereby leading to incomplete analysis
  2. Errors in analysis of the problem or following habits that worked in the past but may not apply to the current situation
  3. Immediate interests overriding long-term interests
  4. Basic values which may require or prohibit certain actions even if the long-term result might be unfavorable (these long-term consequences may eventually cause changes in basic values)
  5. Self-defeating prophecy, or, the fear of some consequence which drives people to find solutions before the problem occurs, thus the non-occurrence of the problem is not anticipated.

I'm not sure I understand all of this, but then I don't pretend to be a sociologist.  In my experience, the Law is usually at its most potent when the object of the said tinkering is a good and humane one. Perhaps just not well thought through.

We recently had an example here in South Africa.  One of the scourges of the undeveloped world is the trafficking in children.  The details vary from one situation to the next, but it  amounts to slavery.  Sometimes the parents are complicit, sometimes the children are simply stolen.  Sometimes the children are forced to work, sometimes they are used for sex.  There is absolutely no doubt that everything possible should be done to end these foul practices. Often trafficking involves moving kids across borders, and this is apparently relatively easy to do one by one with an adult in charge. 

Last year South Africa, in an attempt to support initiatives to prevent child trafficking, introduced new requirements for anyone travelling with a child under the age of eighteen into and out of the country.  Essentially, the adult with the child must be able to produce an original unabridged birth certificate.  Why this is harder to fake than the necessary travel documents, I'm not sure.  What it does mean is that every tourist coming to South Africa with a family needs to produce a full birth certificate for each child. And the consequence of that is that many tourists see it as too much trouble and go elsewhere.  Tourism to South Africa is down some 20% year on year costing the economy some $100 million.

Of course one also needs to be careful of confusing cause and effect.  There are other reasons for the fall.  One is the lingering concern that everywhere in Africa is an ebola risk. (I think there have been more cases in the US than in South Africa.)  Another is the weakness of the world economy.  Nevertheless, the government here is sufficiently concerned to have appointed a commission under the deputy president to look into the matter.

By the way, unintended consequences don't need to be unpredicted.  The government was warned about the possible impact on tourism at the time it introduced the regulations, but decided to ignore it.

I guess the way of dealing with the Law is to use the carpenter's motto: Measure three times, cut once.

Michael - Thursday


  1. Thank you, Michael, for listing the five points that perfectly explain why Greece is in the mess that it's in. Now I don't have to write about that seemingly hopeless situation on Saturday. Then again it's not nearly as horrid as the world ignoring the plight of those children...shameful.

  2. Michael, When I was researching The Idol of Mombasa--my next Tolliver book, I came across an article about slavery today that said more people are enslaved today than there were in the 18th and 19th centuries. One estimate was 23 million people! Perhaps it is worth bearing unexpected consequences if the prohibition stops the trafficking. I wonder if it works.

  3. Gosh, Annamaria, 23 million??? I wonder how that breaks down by area. Perhaps there's a blog there...