On Unintended Consequences
N.B. This was written in response to offline conversation, not to anything seen online. If you happen to have posted on some of these subjects -- so widely discussed this week -- pleeeease know I did NOT have your post in mind!
Particularly in the face of tragedy, melodramatic injustice, and other highly emotion-producing events, the human mind tends to want to bury multidimensional problems under unidimensional analyses (usually labeled "solutions"). Add to this the human tendency to lionize those who agree, and demonize those who disagree, and you get (as they say) a lot more heat than light.1
This post, you'll be relieved to know, is not out to advocate a particular solution to any of several thorny problems; instead, it advocates something rare in discussions of same: an honest admission of the possible downside to our own favored solutions, and possible advantages in the solutions we don't like. One of the most basic points of Initiation is this: Any proposed solution to a problem has unintended consequences, sometimes quite dreadful ones; and the sooner we admit this the stronger our arguments, for whatever "side,"2 tend to become.
Examples:1. Social Safety Net
People forget this, but every form of social safety net known to man became law only to forestall civil unrest: that is, however many do-gooders wanted to help the unfortunate, their desire never became policy until it was needed to stabilize the government in question. Hence, e.g., FDR's reforms in this country in the wake of the Great Depression, and the Russian Revolution which preceded it. As somebody or other (old Joe Kennedy?) put it, You can take half my fortune if you'll guarantee I get to keep the other half. Unintended Consequences
: too ragged a "safety net" and you get social unrest; too generous and you destroy incentive (and that's not even getting into the effect of taxation on the economy). Even compromises run into such consequences, btw: as when legislators didn't want to give handouts to able-bodied adults, but also didn't want their children starving -- hence offered payments per-child...thereby rendering childbearing a form of employment.2. "Zero Tolerance"
We've all heard the examples: as when universities ban all touching of students by teachers, or kids get suspended from school for sharing a Midol with a friend, or bringing scissors to school, or or or. I admit a distinct lack of sympathy for a "zero tolerance" (i.e., mechanical and unthinking) response to most problems...though there are several examples where they've arguably helped, bigtime: as where police are forced to arrest in a domestic disturbance with any sign of injury, regardless of the victim's pleas. Unintended Consequences
: Too much wiggle room in a policy can make for a disaster down the line (not only a Columbine; what do you do about Professor Grody the Tenured when he insists his "friendly touching" is understood by everyone?); too mechanical a policy and you can turn a kid into the offender they previously weren't.3. America the Litigious!
...is itself largely the Unintended Consequence
of something nobody ever seems to talk about: our lack of a subsidized health care system. People in countries with such health care systems don't need to sue their neighbors, or McDonald's, or some innocent manufacturer to keep from being bankrupted by their medical bills. (Note that I don't go to doctors, have never sued anybody, etc. -- just making the point.)
And finally, the two most on people's minds this week.4. Violence in Entertainment and Life
I happen to be a wild-eyed defender of free speech. This does not keep me from understanding that some forms of free speech have Unintended Consequences
: in particular, that film and TV violence, and most especially the revenge plot, tend to prompt imitation, particularly among a small segment of young men. In my own writing I tend to avoid all but the most fantasy-oriented forms of violence, simply so I'll never have to worry that I gave some loony-tune a great new idea.3
I have to admit I wish SOMEone would make some films emphasizing what a weak little dork the Scary Guy With a Gun really is, rather than treating him as a sort of alternate hero in the story, an unstoppable force of nature not far removed from God, and so forth. American film and TV have spent decades equating firearm possession with both power and respect. Crap, what effect do we expect
that outpouring to have? :P
Speaking of which:5. Gun Control
-- the really big one this week, of course, thanks to the horrific events at VT (though not in Congress, where further gun control is largely a dead issue). Though I have no weapons myself, I happen personally to be a strong opponent of most gun control laws (though I'd support the kind of point-of-sale screening meant to keep a guy who just got out of a 72-hour forced psychiatric evaluation from buying a gun for the next few years ;) ). To my mind, the Unintended Consequences
of gun control involve an increased risk of a totalitarian state -- I want a large number of wonky freedom-loving people armed to the teeth, should Unca Adolf ever get elected, even though I don't want to be one of them myself. That said, I don't kid myself: there's a pretty obvious reason that American handgun death stats dwarf those in other countries.4
Then too, I think if people are going to seriously advocate legal concealed carry -- particularly on college campuses -- they might want to think about why carrying a concealed weapon became illegal in the first place (it allows police to arrest someone before
he commits a violent crime); how often in their college years they felt -- e.g., while drunk -- like killing themselves, or someone else, and how the wide availability of concealed handguns on campus might affect that urge; and weigh the likelihood of an incident like that at VT against the likelihood of other, unintended consequences.5
In sum, then, I'm arguing for an effort to thoroughly and sympathetically understand the arguments with which we disagree, and an open admission that we're engaged in a balancing act
: preferring one of several rational courses, rather than hewing to the only reasonable one. The really contentious issues tend to be so because they're complex; pretending they aren't, to my mind, just makes us look like less serious thinkers than we really are.
93 93/93 -- AJ
1. Insert here yet another pitch for S.I. Hayakawa's Language in Thought and Action
, available in most goodsized libraries: a workbook to train ourselves out of the sort of "either-or" thinking I'm critiquing here.
2. Such a formulation is part of the problem: the word "side" puts us on a different "team" from those with whom we disagree, instead of putting all of us on the team looking for reasonable solutions.
3. This has been true ever since I started writing, long before I went pro in 1985. In the early 1970's I came up with an absolutely compelling crime thriller plot, which I instantly realized would (a) sell to Hollywood, and (b) prompt guaranteed copycats in the real world. In the thirty years since, I've only heard of one such real-life instance -- and I'm damned grateful they didn't get the idea from me.
4. i.e., availability of weapons, though the social safety net thing also plays into this, IMO, as does American culture. Still, I think of the guy in Canada who got so furious on the road that he threw his wristwatch at another driver, trying to hurt him. Absent wide access to guns, less people get shot.
5. The VT incident itself, taken in isolation, tends (I believe) to skew one's assessment some in this area -- not only for gun control advocates, but for their opponents. For example, some highly likely unintended consequences of concealed carry at VT this week would have been panicked shooting of every lone person with a gun out, on the theory they were the killer, unintentional hits in a crossfire, and so forth...all of which seems negligible with thirty-two dead. If such events happened every day, concealed carry everywhere would be a no-brainer. (Which is not to say it might not be a valuable experiment, btw -- I was serious about not advocating specific positions here.)