Carpe Diem

Ten examples of the Law of Unintended Consequences

At the website, there’s a great list of ten examples that illustrate the important economic concept of the Law of Unintended Consequences, here’s a summary:

1. “Three strikes” laws may actually be increasing the murder rate, and not decreasing it.

2. Seat belt laws increase the number of car accidents, and increase pedestrian and cyclist deaths.

3. Banning the insecticide DDT almost certainly has led to more deaths, not fewer.

4. Teaching children not to talk to strangers (e.g. the “Stranger Danger Campaign”) may be making them less safe, not more safe.

5.  The lengthy and costly FDA approval process might be causing more, not fewer, deaths.

6. Government regulations that reduced logging in America’s national forests (e.g. to protect the threatened northern spotted owl) may have resulted in more acres of forest being harvested worldwide, not less.

7. Increasing state cigarette taxes may significantly decrease government tax revenues, not increase revenues as expected.

8. Tariff on imports are passed in order to protect domestic industries and jobs from foreign competition, but often end up costing more American jobs than are saved by protectionism.

9. Vegetarianism may lead to an increase in animal deaths, and not a decrease.

10. Thanks to the efforts of animal rights activists, horse slaughter is now banned in the US.  But that ban is very likely making the treatment of horses worse, not better.

MP: The Econoclass website also has some good resources for teaching economics (high school or college level) including debate topics, classroom activities, some brain teasers, some games and simulations, etc.

22 thoughts on “Ten examples of the Law of Unintended Consequences

  1. This does show that there are upsides and downsides to just about any decision that is made. Really depends on the viewer – and the accompanying biases.

  2. The notion of unintended consequences is an important concept, but the examples are not the best.

    For instance, the article claims that DDT was banned, but the Stockholm Convention allows the use of DDT for vector control. Furthermore, mosquitoes were evolving resistance to DDT, so continued use, especially over-use in agriculture, would not have been effective. Reduction in the use of DDT has made it more effective.

    And while the Law of Unintended Consequences is an important concept that applies to all human enterprises, you don’t want it to result in paralysis.

    • … the article claims that DDT was banned, but the Stockholm Convention allows the use of DDT for vector control.” — Zach

      Yes, they made the allowance in 2005 after millions of poor children had already succumbed to malaria following the initial ban in 1972.

      “Proponents of DDT from both developing and industrialized countries contend that DDT’s protective qualities and low cost outweigh environmental hazards in poor countries. In Africa, where malaria kills approximately one million people a year, most of them children, the relatively inexpensive DDT remains an attractive option.”

      How many people does the environmental left get to kill before jackasses, like you, stop apologizing for them?

      • Che: Yes, they made the allowance in 2005 after millions of poor children had already succumbed to malaria following the initial ban in 1972.

        The 1972 ban in the U.S. applied to agricultural uses, but exempted vector control. The Stockholm Convention of 2001 also allowed for vector control.

        Furthermore, mosquitoes were developing resistance to DDT, so it was losing its effectiveness. Limiting agricultural use slowed the evolution of resistant mosquitoes.

        • Wrong.

          … in 1972 Ruckelshaus banned the use of DDT in the United States except under conditions of medical emergencies. Initially, the ban only affected the United States. But the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) soon adopted strict environmental regulations that effectively prohibited it from funding international projects that used DDT. Around the globe, Third World governments were told that if they wanted USAID or other foreign aid money to play with, they needed to stop using the most effective weapon against malaria. Given the corrupt nature of many of the recipient regimes, it is not surprising that many chose lucre over life. And even for those that did not, the halting of American DDT exports (since U.S. producers slowed and then stopped manufacturing it) made DDT much more expensive, and thus effectively unavailable for poor countries in desperate need of the substance. As a result, insect-borne diseases returned to the tropics with a vengeance. By some estimates, the death toll in Africa alone from unnecessary malaria resulting from the restrictions on DDT has exceeded 100 million people.“The Truth About DDT and Silent Spring”, The New Atlantis

          November 1980 issue of Fusion magazine (page 52) stated: “When U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief William Ruckelshaus was about to announce his decision to ban DDT in June 1972, he confided to a friend, “There is no scientific basis for banning this chemical — this is a political decision.”” The ‘friend’ was never identified however. In a commentary the magazine concluded (page 56): “The EPA and environmentalists must be held accountable for their crime: There was not a single human death from DDT usage; there have been untold thousands of deaths and millions of disease-stricken persons as a result of the DDT banning.”

          Fusion’s most comprehensive article about DDT (a dozen or so pages) was in their June 1979 issue. The article stated that independent tests refuted nearly every single government claim as to the harmful effects to wildlife from exposure to DDT and addressed each claim … the article concluded the ‘political’ reason for banning DDT was because it was ‘saving too many third-world lives’

          My own doubts came when DDT was introduced for civilian use. In Guyana, within two years it had almost eliminated malaria, but at the same time the birth rate had doubled. So my chief quarrel with DDT in hindsight is that it has greatly added to the population problem.” — Alexander King, cofounder of the Club of Rome, 1990

          “DDT was replaced by pesticides that are often much more toxic to humans. Many environmentalists dismiss or minimize these concerns. For example, Charles Wurster, chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, was asked if the DDT ban led to loss of human life. His reply was “Probably … so what? People are the causes of all the problems; we have too many of them.” — Junk Science

          Wikipedia is not a source.

        • “In 2006, after 25 years and 50 million preventable deaths, the World Health Organization reversed course and endorsed widespread use of the insecticide DDT to combat malaria. So much for that. Earlier this month, the U.N. agency quietly reverted to promoting less effective methods for attacking the disease. The result is a victory for politics over public health, and millions of the world’s poor will suffer as a result.

          The U.N. now plans to advocate for drastic reductions in the use of DDT, which kills or repels the mosquitoes that spread malaria. The aim “is to achieve a 30% cut in the application of DDT worldwide by 2014 and its total phase-out by the early 2020s, if not sooner,” said WHO and the U.N. Environment Program in a statement on May 6.

          Citing a five-year pilot program that reduced malaria cases in Mexico and South America by distributing antimalaria chloroquine pills to uninfected people, U.N. officials are ready to push for a “zero DDT world.” Sounds nice, except for the facts. It’s true that chloroquine has proven effective when used therapeutically, as in Brazil. But it’s also true that scientists have questioned the safety of the drug as an oral prophylactic because it is toxic and has been shown to cause heart problems.

          Most malarial deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa, where chloroquine once worked but started failing in the 1970s as the parasite developed resistance. Even if the drugs were still effective in Africa, they’re expensive and thus impractical for one of the world’s poorest regions. That’s not an argument against chloroquine, bed nets or other interventions. But it is an argument for continuing to make DDT spraying a key part of any effort to eradicate malaria, which kills about a million people — mainly children — every year.” — WSJ

          • Che is dead: Wrong.

            Only one authoritative citation is necessary.

            As supported by some of your own sources, such as the indirect link to USAID, vector control was not banned. DDT was losing its effectiveness due to evolution of resistance in insects.

          • “In the 1950′s, 60′s and early 70′s, DDT was used to reduce malaria around the world, even eliminating it in places like Taiwan. But then the growing recognition of the harm DDT can cause in the environment – threatening the extinction of the bald eagle, for example – led DDT to be banned in the West and stigmatized worldwide. Ever since, malaria has been on the rise.

            The poor countries that were able to keep malaria in check tend to be the same few that continued to use DDT, like Ecuador. Similarly, in Mexico, malaria rose and fell with the use of DDT. South Africa brought back DDT in 2000, after a switch to other pesticides had led to a surge in malaria, and now the disease is under control again. The evidence is overwhelming: DDT saves lives.”The New York Times

            You are absolutely clueless. And the fact that you believe that it is OK to deny anyone the benefits of DDT, even if it means the death of their child, implies that you are vile as well.

          • Che is dead: But then the growing recognition of the harm DDT can cause in the environment – threatening the extinction of the bald eagle, for example – led DDT to be banned in the West and stigmatized worldwide.

            Good. So you retracted your claim that DDT was banned worldwide. As you point out, some countries continued to use DDT, and it was generally effective, and the evolution of resistant insect strains has been minimized by restricting the use of DDT to vector control.

  3. “Spotted owls, we were told a decade ago, were disappearing because big bad timber companies were cutting down “old growth” forests. So the environmental movement rushed to the forests, hugged the trees and issued news releases to decry the evils of the logging industry. Save the owl. Save the trees. Kill the timber industry.

    Of course, that was exactly the point. Kill the timber industry. As a result of the hysteria to save the “endangered” owls, U.S. timber sales were reduced by 80-90%, forcing saw mills to close, loggers to go broke and whole towns which depended on the industry to literally disappear. The federal crackdown on the industry caused a shift in U.S. domestic lumber supplies to foreign soils. In short, American industry suffered in the name of protecting the spotted owl. Turns out it wasn’t true.

    A decade and thousands of broken dreams later, comes this report from the federal government on the real reasons for the spotted owl’s endangerment: “Oops.”

    According to a new government draft plan to save the species, scientists are no longer saying the greatest threat to the Spotted Owl is logging activity. “The draft recovery plan recognizes the primary threat to northern spotted owls as competition with barred owls.” According to the report, barred owls are less selective about the habitat they use and the prey they feed upon and are out-competing northern spotted owls for habitat and food, causing its decline.” — Canada Free Pres

    The environmental left lays waste to whole American industries with hardly a second thought, never asking or caring about the consequences.

    “How much money does it take to eliminate 3,603 barred owls from select Pacific Northwest zones to make more room for the endangered spotted owl? Well, if you’re the federal government, $3 million over the next four years.

    According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, using a permit allowing the killing of non-game birds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to conduct an experiment over three states to see if by decreasing the number of barred owls (a bird that migrated to the Northwest from the East Coast) will make room for spotted owls (a bird at the center of a heated debate between loggers and environmentalists) to flourish.” — Field and Stream

    Poor barred owls, if only they had migrated from Mexico.

    • Che: Poor barred owls, if only they had migrated from Mexico.

      They migrated from the eastern North America. It’s believed that human-caused changes to the Great Plains removed the natural barrier. The Northern Spotted Owl may have been able to compete, but is already under stress due to much reduced habitat.

      Che: Kill the timber industry.

      Certainly, environmentalists want to preserve old growth forests. However, logging of old growth forests was nearly at an end, as there are few left. Those jobs were doomed.

      • OK, real slowly now.

        The Spotted Owl was not endangered because of logging, but because of competition from the barred owl.

        So, there was never any reason to destroy the regulated and sustainable logging industry of the Pacific Northwest.

        Environmentalists simply pushed the logging to other countries, including many that lacked even basic environmental oversight.

        I guess that a leftist would call that a “win”.

        • Che is dead: The Spotted Owl was not endangered because of logging, but because of competition from the barred owl.

          It is endangered because of loss of habitat and due to an invasive species.

          • “It is endangered because of loss of habitat and due to an invasive species.”

            and for that, we should punish the logging companies?

            are they owned by barred owls?

          • morganovich: and for that, we should punish the logging companies?

            There is a trade-off between economic development and preservation of natural resources.

          • There is a trade-off between economic development and preservation of natural resources.

            Except that you aren’t talking about resources, Zach. You are talking about the habitat of some random bird.

  4. I don’t know about the vegetarians, but I know that giving money to PETA definitely leads to an increase in animal deaths:

    Documents published online this month show that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an organization known for its uncompromising animal-rights positions, killed more than 95 percent of the pets in its care in 2011.

    Fifteen years’ worth of similar records show that since 1998 PETA has killed more than 27,000 animals at its headquarters in Norfolk, VA.

    … PETA has a $37 million dollar annual budget. — The Daily Caller

    • This one I agree with. Peta is a self promoting group of angry schmucks. No money donated to Peta goes towards saving a single animal. By their own Mission Statement, they are in the business of ‘raising awareness’ and do not actually do anything.

  5. In the private sector actions that produce unintended consequences tend to get reversed pretty quickly because there is an incentive to do so. Just the opposite happens in the public sector where reversing a decision would result in a loss of government control (sometimes a major objective in the first place).

    • and also take away the wonderful opportunity to enact new laws and restrictions to correct the unforeseen consequences, which, of course, tend to have unintended consequences of their own.

      it’s the closest thing to perpetual motion yet devised.

  6. “May Cause” “May Have” “May Lead”

    When did being the stupidest person in the room become a Republican value?

    This is just another example of how anti-science religious extremists and the Tea Party are ruining the Republican Party. Go Away! I want my GOP back!

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