The image of the fictional character Ethan Hunt (aka Tom Cruise) dropping down from the ceiling of a super secure enemy site to manipulate a computer in one of the “Mission Impossible” movie series perfectly illuminates the misguided belief that with perfect intelligence and planning a mission without unintended consequences is possible. Our modern western culture has been greatly influenced by virtual reality in video gaming, in complex theory and risk analysis formulas, and in the increasing confidence in technology that permits us to believe that it is possible to plan for any eventuality.
Examples of unintended consequences are legion. A quick perusal of the Internet raises pages and pages to the screen. In 1996 author John Ross wrote a book entitled “Unintended Consequences” that focused on gun control and the history of gun rights that is often cited as an excellent example of unintended consequences. As one reads through the many examples of negative and sometimes positive unintended consequences of an action in becomes obvious that as a universal subject unintended consequences can be used in any setting or for any subject.
We find a single constant while planning for all contingencies. The effort to have perfect intelligence, to account for all contingencies, and to see the future is a time consuming task and its pursuit will delay action. Although it sounds counterintuitive, the pursuit of information and the efforts to sort through information overload will eventually cause governance to slow. Initially, more resources are brought to bear on an issue and government in the form of the department or agency tasked with the mission of planning begins the long task of categorizing information to lug into the latest super formula. This all takes time. As governments or large corporations grow size tends to limit flexibility and the institution’s ability to affect rapid change. As growth inhibits governance it follows naturally that a point of diminishing returns is reached. At some point the continuation of the activity or the institution is questioned. In current American electoral parlance we see a call for the end of the FED, the abolishment of the IRS, or a reset in terms of our NATO commitment. There is nothing new in this. Poor and sluggish governance will eventually be questioned.
Much of the current frustration with our government is expressed in the popular comment that Washington can’t get anything done anymore. Issues such as economic competition between existing groups such as working poor and the lower middle class with immigrants; cultural fears arising from the too rapid assimilation or non-assimulation of persons with foreign cultures and religions; or even historical perspectives coloring a citizen’s and recent immigrants view of the world all contribute to the slowing of governance simply because the issues are so complex they require – or should require- a greater depth of thought on how to deal with them. As shown above, frustration with a lack of timely and intelligent governance may then translate into the question “Why do we need this and why should we pay for this?”
Rather than simply calling for smaller government why not harness the current and continuing popular frustration by using a strategy loudly to promote greater efforts in planning prior to execution of any government programs. The net result will be slower governance and greater frustration by the citizenry. This increases the sense that nothing is getting done and money spent on the effort is not worthwhile. The net long-term result is an acceptance for smaller government. As a Libertarian policy, smaller government is key. We recognize that the unintended consequences of well-intentioned government programs bring about serious and often long-term negative results. Smaller government, less active in the day-to-day lives of the citizenry promotes independence on one hand, and less possibility of negative unintended consequences on the other. As a strategy, pressing for increased scrutiny of government programs prior to their execution is one of several ways to achieve that end. As mentioned before, the idea is counter intuitive but often the most effective means to a goal may be found in the disguised unintended consequence. But, as noted we may have other positive or negative unintended consequences as a result of this action. That my friends is the nature of unintended consequences.
Written by Robert Phillipson