George Walford: Unintended Consequences

Reforms have an unfortunate tendency to produce unintended consequences; Katharine Whitehorn recently noted some more instances of this: Clear away slums and you destroy family relationships; give children school meals and mothers stop thinking it their job to feed them; introduce the potato to Ireland and produce the famines of the 1840s, and Irish Americans financing the IRA; prohibit alcohol and bring the Mafia into America; introduce a shoe-factory to give employment to Africans and put 2,000 sandalmakers out of work; cure a lot of disease by introducing the NHS and produce a lot of old people who have to be cared for; introduce the Rent Acts to give tenants security and end up with practically nothing offered for renting. (Observer 24 Feb 85)

Another reform is in progress, and this time the possible consequences are being spelt out in advance. Under the headline “Billion-Dollar War on Tsetse Fly Could be Disastrous for Africa” (does nobody think in mere millions any more?) the Sunday Times of 10 March reports an attempt being made to suppress the fly over a large area of Africa (on the sketch-map it looks like half the continent) by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. There are fears that the treatment proposed, and the intended introduction of cattle when the tsetse is under control, may produce deforestation and spreading of the deserts.

Another example: Howard Sharron shows that the lawmakers are no better able to predict the effects of their efforts than the social reformers and the agriculturists; new laws too, however thoroughly considered, have a nasty way of turning in the hand. Thus the Redcliffe-Maude report of the late 1960s was intended to bring the spread of local council bureaucracy under control, but in fact produced the opposite effect, leading to the present trouble between central and local government. The 1981 Education Act, intended to end the placing of children with handicaps in special schools, produced an “explosion” in the numbers so treated.

A point Whitehorn makes seems to apply equally well to these examples as well as those she cites: once the new problem has been created you don’t solve it just by cancelling your reform.

But what to do? The only way out is forward. What we suffer from is not an excess of power, enabling us to make changes which produce unintended harm, but a lack of the knowledge and understanding which would enable us to avoid the harm.

Sharron is reporting on the work of Professor Norman Tutt at Lancaster University, who has produced a name for the phenomenon: “the Unintended Consequences Syndrome.” Professor Tutt speaks of the need for authorities and bureaucrats to be kept more in touch with the results of their actions, but the problem seems to be wider than that. There are evidently factors at work which have not been recognised and understood, and it is our suggestion that ideology, in the sense in which IC uses the term, is among those factors; it leads people to behave in ways the reformers do not anticipate. When reformers first encounter systematic ideology it sometimes appears to them as an opposing influence, but in fact the conclusions – tentative as these are – which it puts forward are something the reformers need to accept if their efforts are to be more successful than they have been in the past.

from Ideological Commentary 18, June 1985.