Unintended/Unforeseen Consequences

The sad case of Aaron Swartz, mentioned and debated in previous blogs and comments, underscores a question that I and others have doubtless had for years:  Why is it that so many individuals and organizations are astounded by, or perhaps oblivious to, the side-effects and/or unintended consequences of their actions?

Swartz clearly did not understand the implications and ramifications of his actions, and, while we can never know, I suspect that the consequences of his actions literally overwhelmed him.  Do I have proof of his lack of understanding?  Not in the legal sense, but when one attacks the legal basis of the American entertainment industry, the print and publications industry, not to mention precedents clearly set forth in the U.S. Constitution, as well as later established legal precedents of more than a century and commits a crime or two in the process of doing so, even minor ones, and then insists that one should not spend a single day in jail… that does suggest at the very least a certain naiveté, that or incredible arrogance.  But then, by all accounts, Swartz was a genius, and many of genius are both naïve and arrogant.

Yet lack of understanding of consequences isn’t limited to naïve geniuses. Why were so many in the financial community offended and surprised by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and the support it generated, at least for a time, and for the continuing level of anger and distrust?  Let’s see… you essentially defrauded banks and mortgage holders with your securitized CDOs and other financial gadgets and crashed the economy into the second worst recession/depression in a century… and you’re surprised that so many people got upset?

What about the National Rifle Association and its members?  Do you really think the people who are skeptical of home arsenals with semi-automatic weapons with 30 or 100 bullet magazines are going to react happily when, just after 20 innocent school children and 6 teachers are gunned down with those kind of weapons, you issue statements insisting on the freedom to carry assault type weapons and propose armed guards in every school in the country at a time when schools are having to lay off teachers?  Why don’t you just throw barrels of gunpowder into the fire you lit?

Then there is the U.S. Congress… that august body that has, for the past fifty years, essentially spent more than it has collected in taxes in all but a handful of years… and now, suddenly, doesn’t want to borrow any more money to pay its debts, and is talking about cutting Medicare and Social Security benefits, as well as unemployment benefits… and can’t get its act together… But the members wonder why the approval rating of Congress has dropped to something like 24%., and the ratings of the leadership even lower than that, when each of them insists he or she is just doing what his or her constituents want.

Amazon decided several years back that it was going to dominate the book market, especially the ebook market, no matter what, through predatory pricing. Didn’t Amazon think the publishers might react?  They did, and decided on the agency model.  Amazon’s share of ebooks dropped from 91% to something like 61%  and, in turn, Amazon funded “citizen initiatives” in California and elsewhere, and lo and behold, the Department of Justice has taken action in favor of predatory prices to keep book prices low, at least for bestsellers and for the moment. But didn’t the publishers have any idea that the huge pressure for free or low-cost ebooks would have a consequence?  Macmillan and Apple apparently do, from their acts and statements, and understand that the DOJ suit is political, rather than based on true antitrust grounds, but they’re taking a huge risk. The other publishers caved almost immediately…and clearly don’t see, or care, that if Amazon and DOJ win, we’ll see another significant round of bookstore closings,  yet another major factor contributing to the continuing decline of what I’d call serious pleasure reading.

The Affordable Health Care Act was the result of a health care and insurance system that left nearly fifty million Americans unable to afford health care.  Didn’t anyone think that sooner or later, some politician was going to try to do something about it?  And now that it’s law…employers are laying off workers or reducing their hours because they don’t want to comply with the requirements.  Didn’t anyone think about that?

Outside of the big and the obvious, unintended consequences are everywhere, and I’m certain all of us can relate individual examples which we’ve witnessed.  There are instances everywhere – but why does it happen so often?

Because, in all of these cases, and in all the others with which I’m familiar, those who made the decisions or pushed the projects, or the like, that caused the side effects and consequences are so deeply locked in their view of the world that they either cannot see another view or dismiss that view as wrong or incorrect. If you will, most people are locked in their own bubbles, at least on the matters that mean the most to them.

Sometimes that’s because they believe so deeply in what they do that they cannot see beyond those beliefs.  I’ve known and talked to enough NRA members to know that the vast majority believe that they cannot truly be safe without weapons to defend them and their homes and loved ones. They believe that they and those who believe as they do are the only reliable bastion of protection – and, sad to say, in some cases they’re probably right.  But that same culture that has made guns so available has also made millions of weapons available to those who should never have them.  The freedom to own personal firearms has had the side-effect of making them available to those who should not have them… and I’ve not seen anyone in a high position of power point this out, although I’m certain more than a few people have.

Greater freedom and the lack of effective oversight, in the form of deregulation, led to greater abuses by the banks and investment bankers.  Why should anyone have been surprised?  The same sort of problems occurred in 1929 and even earlier.  The reforms of the 1930s were enacted for a reason, but after almost eighty years, the lure of greater profits and growth was stronger than the fading knowledge of history, and that’s not surprising, because each generation of human beings has always known that it is smarter and knows more than the preceding generation, just as each older generation knows that the youngsters have learned nothing and respect nothing.

But what’s common to both is the feeling that the inevitable consequences of actions, both wise and unwise, won’t affect them… or not too severely.


8 thoughts on “Unintended/Unforeseen Consequences”

  1. Brian says:

    As I was reading the above, I could not help but make the connection to some previous relevant Blog entries. I decided to search through the archives for them. There are others, but the four that came immediately to mind are:

    “The ‘Undo’ Button”, August 2, 2011
    “‘Willing’ It To Be”, May 8, 2012
    “Intellectual Property Piracy: A Few [More] Thoughts”, July 10, 2012
    “Genius Doesn’t Excuse Anything”, August 3, 2012

    Being personally responsible for one’s actions or inaction is something I take seriously. Accepting the consequences, intended or unintended, that one’s action or inaction bring upon us, good or bad, is part of the learning process. The belief that we can ‘undo’ our actions if things don’t work out as planned or ‘willing’ something ‘to be’, as opposed to hard work and dedication, can give us the results we desire, just doesn’t cut it. If our activities break existing laws, then be prepared to be investigated and prosecuted. Unfortunately, it would seem that individuals, law makers, financial ‘experts’ etc. seem more intent on blaming everyone else….

  2. Noin says:

    Why does copyright deserve special protection? If I do a job and am not paid, I have to take my client to court. This is a civil matter however much money is involved. But copyright violations are special: Federal prosecutors prosecute for free, and cases are tried as criminal (felonies). The government even tries to extradite people for copyright offenses. Why the special treatment?

    1. It doesn’t necessarily get special protections. Most copyright cases are still civil lawsuits. As I understand it, the criminal element involves theft. If someone breaks copyright and makes money from it, that is theft, and large theft cases are criminal felonies or misdemeanors.

    2. Ryan Jackson says:

      Beyond what Mr. Modesitt already said. You’re not comparing them evenly. If someone rips you off for a lot of money, your ability to collect damages would be handled in civil court. If said rip off is also a federal crime then that can be handled in a federal court aside from your own civil trial.

  3. K. Rizer says:

    It’s hard for people to see that the unintended side effects of their actions will be as significant as they turn out to be.
    Pardon the variable, but this trims it down some.
    Jones does A for result B, with probable side effects C, D, and E. But even though he may have foreseen C, D, and E, he really just wants B – and that’s so good that he’d risk the (even great) probability that all the other might happen.
    When in the 90s it was deigned desirable to raise US homeownership rates, initiatives were developed to reduce ‘barriers to borrowing,’ essentially guiding banks to make more risky loans than those to which they had been accustomed. They were of course going to do with those loans the same thing they did with the more secure loans they had been making all along – but isn’t homeownership a great thing?
    Something like two million AR-15s have been sold in the last decade. Supposedly it’s a very popular sport-shooting gun, because it’s so accurate, light and easy to use! But we should have an armed and trained people, in order to safeguard liberty – Isn’t the right to bear arms a great thing?
    Most of the examples you’ve put down are just that. Circumstances are what they are. Someone wants to change them for a particular reason, a reason so important, to them (they know) and to others (because they know best, right?), that the change must be made and damn the consequences.

  4. mikor says:

    As I was reading the recent “Imager Portfolio” books, including the excellent IMAGER’S BATTALION, I was struck by the parallels of Quaryt looking for themes to expand in his sermons, and our host’s blog entries.

  5. Doug Rowe says:

    So was the forced reducing of banking standards, by the Government, which lead to the housing and then banking bubble an unintended or intended consequence?

  6. Wine Guy says:


    I’d say unintended, since those who put it into place certainly did not see where the breakdown would lead the US economically. All people saw were barriers that kept them from either investing however they wanted or kept them from buying their ‘dream house.’ When all a person can see is a barrier, then their tool of choice is a wrecking ball, not necessarily a considered approach.

    There other aspects to this, of course.

    Consider this: when you combine the incredibly complex beast that is the US economy with the pressure on banks/investment managers/etc. to maximize profit, they will inevitably utilize any legal loophole/gambit to increase profits. Since they have no legal responsibility to the rest of the country (only their shareholders), there is zero incentive for them to look past their own bottom line.

    Until irrational exuberance happens and slaps them all in the face and several go to jail.

    As it stands now, there is zero benefit for them to look at the health of the economy or the country. Their only benefit comes from manipulating things to their best benefit.

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