My favorite law


My favorite law

The law of unintended consequences it the only law that cannot be changed or repealed. Like laws of physics, it simply is.

The law of unintended consequences, often cited but rarely defined, is that actions of people, and especially of governments, always have effects that are unanticipated or “unintended.” Economists and other social scientists have heeded its power for centuries; for just as long, politicians and popular opinion have largely ignored it.

The concept of unintended consequences is one of the building blocks of economics. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” the most famous metaphor in social science, is an example of a positive unintended consequence. Smith maintained that each individual, seeking only his own gain, “is led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention,” that end being the public interest. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, or the baker, that we expect our dinner,” Smith wrote, “but from regard to their own self interest.”

American sociologist Robert K. Merton. In an influential article titled “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action,” Merton identified five sources of unanticipated consequences. The first two, and the most pervasive, were ignorance and error. Merton labeled the third source the “imperious immediacy of interest.” By that he was referring to instances in which an individual wants the intended consequence of an action so much that he purposefully chooses to ignore any unintended effects. (That type of willful ignorance is very different from true ignorance.) Check out Merton for the other two sources.

Adam Smith may be correct, but the line ‘actions of people, especially of governments, always have effects that are unanticipated or “unintended” seems to stand out.

Seems the Swiss have done a study on micro-mobility. You know, electric bikes and mini scooters that are billed to be so green. The pitch has been that they should be made available on an as needed bases, that people can rent them when and where they need them. Seems reasonable. However the crafty Swiss have discovered that people who rent them replace walking, pedal powered bikes and public transportation, all of which have a much smaller carbon footprint than micro critters. However if you actually purchase one, you will use it more judiciously, and not simply to replace walking, peddling, and public transportation. Who knew? An unintended consequence?

There have been folks sniffing around the periphery of EVs and have been sounding alarms about the non-environmental qualities of the entire process of the building, charging, and disposing of batteries. Is it possible we, in our desire to save the planet, are “purposefully choosing to ignore any unintended effects.” Surely not.


Picture of John Van Horn

John Van Horn

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