OVER the years, the phrase "unintended consequences" has come up with increasing frequency, as more and more wonderful-sounding ideas have led to disastrous results. By now, you might think that people with wonderful-sounding ideas would start to question what the consequences would turn out to be -- and would devote as much time to discovering those consequences as to getting their ideas accepted and turned into laws and policies. But that seldom, if ever, happens.
Why doesn't it? Because a lot depends on what it is you are trying to accomplish. If your purpose is to achieve the heady feeling of being one of the moral elite, then that can be accomplished without the long and tedious work of following up on results.
The worldwide crusade to ban the pesticide DDT is a classic example. This crusade was begun by the much revered Rachel Carson, whose best-selling book "Silent Spring" was based on the premise that DDT's adverse effects on the eggs of song birds would end up wiping out these species. After that, springtime would no longer be marked by birds singing; hence the silent spring.
Rachel Carson and the environmentalists she inspired have succeeded in getting DDT banned in country after country, for which they have received the accolades of many, not least their own accolades. But, in terms of the actual consequences of that crusade, there has not been a mass murderer executed in the past half-century who has been responsible for as many deaths of human beings as the sainted Rachel Carson. The banning of DDT has led to a huge resurgence of malaria in the Third World, with deaths rising into the millions.
This pioneer of the environmental movement has not been judged by such consequences, but by the inspiring goals and political success of the movement she spawned. Still less are the environmentalists held responsible for the blackouts plaguing California in the past year or the more frequent blackouts and more disastrous economic consequences that can be expected in the years ahead, despite the key role of environmental extremists in preventing power plants from being built.
The greens have likewise obstructed access to the fuels needed to generate electricity, run automobiles and trucks, and perform innumerable other tasks in the economy. Nationwide, the greens have been so successful in preventing oil refineries from being built that the last one constructed anywhere in the United States was built during the Ford administration. But environmentalists are seldom mentioned among the reasons for today's short supplies of oil and the resulting skyrocketing prices of gasoline.
Advocates of rent control are not judged by the housing shortages that invariably follow, but by their professed desire to promote "affordable housing" for all. Nor are those who have promoted price controls on food in various countries being judged by the hunger, malnutrition or even starvation that have followed. They are judged by their laudable goal of seeking to make food affordable by the poor -- even if the poor end up with less food than before.
Some try to argue against the evidence for these and other counterproductive consequences of high-sounding policies. But what is crucial is that those who advocated such policies usually never bothered to seek evidence on their own -- and have resented the evidence presented by others. In short, what they advocated had the intended consequences for themselves -- making them feel good -- and there was far less interest in the unintended consequences for others.
Even before the rise of today's many social activist movements, T.S. Eliot understood such people and their priorities. Writing in 1950, he said: "Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm -- but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves."
There is little hope of changing such people. But what the rest of us can do is stop gullibly accepting their ego trips as idealistic efforts for others. Above all, we need to stop letting them morally intimidate us into silence about the actual consequences of their crusades. The time is long overdue for us to insist that they put up or shut up, in terms of hard evidence about results, rather than the pious hopes that make them feel so