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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

unintended consequences

(late 1980’s | “Murphy’s Law,” “fly in the ointment,” “revenge of . . . ” )

Is this phrase eligible? It’s a very old idea, and its status as a concept worthy of study goes back at least to the eighteenth century, Adam Smith’s invisible hand being a potent example. Sociologist Robert K. Merton wrote an influential essay titled “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action” in 1936. (Another variant is “unintended effects.”) “Unintended consequences” has become the accepted form, a step that probably had happened by 1980: “In Washington these days, one often hears references to ‘the unintended consequences of reform’” (New York Times, August 24, 1980). So the phrase cannot be said to have originated after 1970, but it has become more common; like many new(ish) terms, it has gone from relatively specialized to relatively demotic. (Before this phrase took root, we were more likely to express the same idea with a verb, like “backfire” or “come back to haunt.”)

On the one hand, the phrase is stultifyingly simple, almost impossible to misunderstand. But there’s a lot going on underneath that we need to attend to. Let’s parse this one out (pardon the expression) and see what we find.

Wikipedia breaks the concept down into three types: benefits, detriments, and perverse outcomes. Only the last requires any explanation: a perverse outcome occurs when a policy designed to ameliorate a specific condition makes it worse instead. (Detriments don’t necessarily have to do with the problem at hand; any unfortunate result might qualify.) In common discourse, I would venture that the second and third usages occur far more often, although it’s certainly true that unintended consequences are not always bad. Likewise, the phrase “law (or doctrine) of unintended consequences” is invoked when something has gone wrong, whether the doctrine is held to say merely that unintended consequences, good or bad, can’t be avoided, or that unintended consequences always bite you in the ass — both formulations may be found.

This phrase seems generally to have to do with politics, legislation, and public policy, much less often with private decisions and actions. I’m not sure why that should be, since surely we can fail to foresee what might follow from our personal dealings as easily as our solutions to more general problems. But that is something I’ve observed and that LexisNexis confirms pretty resoundingly. It’s important because it ironically frees up the phrase to take on multiple shadings, as set phrases in politics so often do. “Unintended consequences” means three different things. First, at the most innocent level, the term acknowledges that no action affects only its designated target, that the world is too complicated to permit us to see all the possible results of any action. Second, it is used as a way of saying the road to hell is paved with good intentions. More precisely, “unintended consequences” make a great club to beat back any kind of social reform. Since every attempt of the government to change things for the better will make something somewhere worse, the government should never try to make conditions generally better. (It should, however, continue to make a small number of very rich people richer.) A single ill effect, even if it’s not fully attributable to the reform in question, outweighs any possible improvement. Finally, it’s a way for politicians to avoid taking responsibility for the effects of their laws, or for their defenders to suggest that the bigger problem we face now that arose from the solution of the previous problem could not reasonably have been foreseen. This usage is rarely innocent; often blatantly predictable consequences are dismissed as “unintended,” and it becomes a phrase to hide behind.

That’s why we need to keep in view the crucial difference between “unintended consequence” and “unforeseeable consequence.” Some effects really cannot be predicted, given our incomplete knowledge and the gaps in our understanding of how the world works. But that doesn’t mean we let everyone responsible off the hook every time something goes wrong. If a legislator just bats out laws banning whatever conduct is agitating Peoria this week, without taking time to ask, “what could go wrong if this is enacted?”, that’s a failure of democracy. Nobody’s perfect, but policymakers must consider a variety of possible consequences and take some steps to prevent the least desirable from afflicting us. If not, “unintended consequences” turns into a blank check. No matter what goes wrong, you plead that you didn’t mean it, and implicitly, that no one could have seen it coming. It’s a poor excuse and we can’t afford to accept it lightly.

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