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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » The Unintended, Unforeseen Consequences of Legislation

The Unintended, Unforeseen Consequences of Legislation

Pit Bull: Dog Restricted By UK Law - jclutter
Good intentions in law-making to solve a problem are not always enough. Sometimes new laws can actually make things worse.

From battling oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico, to the British government considering further gun bans after the latest outrage in Carlisle, to the dilemma of raising taxes/cutting expenditure by itself threatening further recession, rarely has the question of legislating out of a problem been so sharply in focus.

Every legislature churns out regulations, prohibitions, procedures and restrictions; most people assume a perceived injustice, error or outdated rule will be put right. US president Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) defined democracy as ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’. People expect laws to right the wrongs.

However, Cass R Sunstein writing in Columbia Law Review 1994, says:‘minimum wage laws appear to reduce employment. Stringent regulation of new sources of air pollution may aggravate pollution problems, by perpetuating the life of old, especially dirty sources. If government closely monitors the release of information, there may be less information’.

Laws of Unintended Consequences

According to Rob Norton, former economics editor of Fortune magazine, the Law of Unintended Consequences is ‘often cited but rarely defined’. It means actions that have unforeseen or negative effects. Norton says that economists and social scientists heed that law; politicians and popular opinion ignore it.

He cites Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from regard to their own self-interest’. This is the basis of the economic system, a benign unintended consequence of motive.

However, he believes that perverse, unanticipated consequences are more frequently the outcome of well-intended laws. In 1692, the English philosopher John Locke argued against a Parliamentary bill designed to cut maximum interest rate from 6% to 4%, on the grounds that some would avoid the rule and there’d be less credit for poor people.

In 1936 US sociologist Robert K Merton identified sources of unanticipated consequences as ignorance (true and wilful), error, immediacy of interest – and illustrated it by arguing that the US Food and Drug Administration’s regulating of pharmaceutical drugs and insisting on their efficacy, has over years delayed implementation which may have cost lives. It’s a case of deciding the greater good: tried and tested medicines later, or untested risk now?

He also described the paradox that the hard-work ethic eventually declines under earned wealth and possessions; and the self-defeating prophecy. When early 20th century predictions painted a starving world overwhelmed by population, it spurred scientific advances in agriculture to feed more better, so the gloomy prognostication didn’t materialise.

Laws That Have Not Turned Out As Expected

Government import-quotas protect companies and workers from cheaper imports, but make less cheap materials available for another industry. Some economists believe that safety nets of old-age social security prevent people saving and investing in pensions; so protection becomes disincentive, as when people are better-off on benefits than working. When a trade or profession is licensed to maintain standards, it restricts new entrants and can price services beyond the means of people who need them. In the UK, when a court’s Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) becomes a badge of honour, then the restrictive aim is subverted.

In the UK in the 1980s, there was a spate of laws pushed through Parliament in response (knee-jerk, some say) to disastrous problems. The tabloids demanded action following savage injuries to children caused by aggressive/uncontrolled dogs. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was the government response, outlawing ownership of certain dogs, with those registered being muzzled, leashed, insured, tattooed, microchip implanted and neutered. Such dogs have become weapon of choice for numbers of criminals.

About the same time, there was a problem with crowd behaviour at UK football (soccer) matches. Violence was growing, and the media featured organised gangs of hooligans. The response to the ‘something must be done’ outcry, was The Football Spectators Act (1989,) which introduced a compulsory football membership scheme to log every fan. Largely unworkable, it’s since been amended beyond recognition.

Salmonella became an issue in Britain in 1988, when Edwina Currie, a junior health minister, claimed all eggs were infected. The outcry caused her resignation, the slaughter of 2 million chickens, the near-collapse of the UK egg production industry and fresh laws about food hygiene, that may have enhanced food safety, but narrowed restaurant choice and raised prices.

Similar scares of foot and mouth disease in cattle and of ‘mad cow’ disease or bovine spongiform encephalopathy led to mass slaughters across British rural areas compounding farmers’ economic difficulties, raising prices and increasing imports.

The June 2010 UK gun killings by Derrick Bird have reopened memories 14 years ago when former Boy Scout leader Thomas Hamilton shot 16 children and a teacher dead at a school in Dunblane, Scotland. That was preceded in Hungerford by gun fanatic Michael Ryan armed with an automatic rifle, a pistol and a hand grenade. He killed 16, including his mother.

Dunblane caused a tightening of UK gun ownership laws, that has not slowed the rise of gun crime, but has restricted gun sports-people. Shootings happen in many countries, including the USA, and children are as often as not the victims.

The question for law-makers is what is a measured response to massacre; how to balance control with freedom of choice? That is the conundrum that representatives are elected to solve.

First published on Suite 101, 7 June 2010.

Photo: Pit Bull: Dog Restricted By UK Law – jclutter

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