The Contrary Consequences of Technology and Other Unnatural Actions

Nature does not Like Being Messed with -- Especially by Amateurs

By S. Leon Felkins
October 1, 2002


You can't do just one thing.
Hardin, Garrett. (1968). "Human ecology", American Zoology, 25, 469-476

It has always seem to me that there is another law of this universe -- as solid as the Law of Gravity -- mandating that whenever any action is taken or any decision is made, there will be consequences opposite to the desired results. In these times of almost universal shirking of responsibility -- not entirely monopolized by politicians -- we often hear this phenomenon referred to as "unintended consequences" or maybe "unanticipated consequences". But the problem is bigger than that and for most thinking/responsible people, the possible negative consequences of an action are at least partially known or expected. It's just that much of the time, there is not much you can do about it.

What am I talking about? Let me give you a few examples.

Before we go on, let me clarify what I am not talking about in this essay. I am not talking about stupidity, the deceptions of politicians or bad luck. The emphasis here will be on inevitable, undesired, consequences of actions taken by responsible, thoughtful persons (see Tim Healy's paper, "The Unanticipated consequences of Technology" for an elaboration of the types of consequences).

But is this a universal law like the law of gravity or is it just something that results from lazy, irresponsible, unthinking, humans being involved? I'm afraid it is universal and ubiquitous. To offer some evidence of that, let us take a look at dealing with inanimate, or at least non-human, objects first. Surely they don't fight back -- or do they.

Murphy's Law out of Control or the Amazing Ability of Technology to Thwart our Intentions

Futurists had not reckoned with the perversity of ordinary objects and systems. -- Edward Tenner

Several years ago when I first started thinking about this puzzle, I looked for books on the subject. Surely I was not the only one who had observed this curious law of nature. I found an excellent book on the subject by Edward Tenner, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996). A review of the book by Douglas Merrill can be found at CAP. Curiously, Chapter 5 is online at the Business Week site, with no mention of Tenner's name or the name of the book! "Tennis and the Revenge of Technological Revolution", another excerpt, is also online. I would encourage you to consult Tenner's book on the technological issues discussed here.

Following Healy in his essay mentioned above, I would like to broaden the definition of technology (which Healy attributes to James Beniger in The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1986):

"...that which can be done, excluding only those capabilities that occur naturally in living systems."
Basically, what we are talking about are actions by humans -- generally falling outside the category, "naturally in living systems". A good example would be the requirement that businesses hire people based on race or gender and not based primarily on desirability or ability, i.e., the "quota system". It is unnatural and has negative consequences.

Let us take a more detailed look at a couple of prime examples of technology being stubborn: the medical system and computerization.

Propagation of Complexities

Civilization is a limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities. — Mark Twain

When a rule or law is made and invoked, we see that unintended consequences result almost without exception. One solution to this problem -- a solution favored by politicians and other of the ignorant persuasion -- is to add additional rules or laws to correct or remove the unintended consequences. Of course, this just compounds the problem, adding new unintended consequences, often in excess or worse than the original ones.

Most of us have experienced this problem when we take our car to the auto repair shop (or worse, take our bodies to the physicians). A couple of years back, I bought a new Chevy SUV that I found, after a few days in my garage, had a minor oil leak. I reluctantly took it in to get repaired. To fix the oil leak, they removed the engine. When I got it back, I had an A/C system that didn't work and a horn that worked when I didn't want it to. Oh, and by the way, I still had the oil leak.

But the best demonstration of this phenomenon is the growth of income tax regulations. The size of the regulations has grown exponentially (the income tax code is now over 17,000 pages of fine print - 5.5 million words, according to a "Super Citizen" article) primarily in response to the governments efforts to correct previous "unintended consequences".

I believe that if I were considerably more mathematically inclined, I could prove that this always happens with complex systems -- that is, the system gets more complex as a result of efforts to fix the previous complexities. So, while I can't prove it, I believe it to be so.

The Special Case of Political Actions

. . . uninstructed legislators have in past times continually increased human suffering in their endeavours to mitigate it. . . -- Herbert Spencer, "The Sins of Legislators"
The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern. -- Lord Acton

While we recognize that when politicians lament the "unintended consequences" of their last action, that they could very well be just blowing smoke. Still they really are subject to the same "law of unintended consequences" as the rest of us. Sticking with the theme of this essay, then, I would like to look at some of the political consequences that resulted not necessarily from the usual disingenuous political motives (lust for votes, money, power, and etc.) but from fundamental difficulties.

The first issue that comes to mind is government itself. If we imagine for a moment that we are a free, ungoverned people, such as the Native Americans were before the Europeans brought "civilization", and we further imagine that we need to have a government (for it appears to be the only solution to some of the "public goods" problems), what would be the consequences? Well, first off, we will have to give this "government" a monopoly over force, with the power to make us all comply with rules and laws. A major problem immediately raises its head: where are the human beings that are honest, intelligent, responsible, and generally fit to govern the rest of us?

The consequences of that problem, some would say, outweigh the original problems of being ungoverned.

A related example of perverse consequences associated from an effort to do a good thing was the incorporation of the "Bill of Rights" in our Constitution. Some of the Founding Fathers, particularly Hamilton (see Federalist #84), were fearful that by defining specific rights for the citizens, the government could assume that the citizens had no other rights. Well, Hamilton lost -- the Bill of Rights was attached and it now appears, at least to some of us, that it possibly was a mistake.

Those problems are rather academic for we do have a government and it is likely to stay that way. Then let me give an example of a problem of governance.

A good one is the raft of welfare programs. We agree that if there is to be government handouts, they ought to go to the really needy and not to the affluent. But trouble lurks over the next decision hill. First off we have to arbitrarily decide who is "needy", a decision fraught with all kinds of inequities in itself. But given that, our next problem is that we have now built an incentive to stay "needy". The most obvious example of this result is the criteria for giving handouts to mothers based on the family being fatherless. This, of course, resulted in the destruction of families in the poorer classes and an enormous increase in the percentage of unwed mothers.

A related problem is the issue of the government solution to abused children and abused animals. The cure may be worse than the original problem because these agencies that were created to "solve" these problems, are now mostly dedicated to insuring their own survival. In so doing, children and animals are cruelly taken from their homes for a host of trumped up reasons -- in order to keep the work flowing. Jobs are at stake and jobs are a heck of a lot more important to these bureaucrats than a destroyed life here and there!

Deitrich Dörner in his book, The Logic of Failure sums up the situation very well: "[I]t is far from clear whether 'good intentions plus stupidity' or 'evil intentions plus intelligence' have wrought more harm in the world."

How to deal with these political "unintended consequences" is not only beyond the capabilities of the people we elect to govern us but is also far beyond the scope of this essay!

Now for a totally unrelated example, let us consider the issue of justice for the accused. It would seem that the intelligent thing to do is to have a professional judge or judges to make decisions over criminal cases. For the intricacies of law, determining the intent of the accused, the environment in which the infraction occurred, etc. are far too complex for the average citizen (see "Trial by Jury vs. Trial by Judge"). So why don't we do that? Well, because we can't trust the people that somehow worm their way into judgeships. So, we decide that people ought to have the right to a jury of their peers.

But there are consequences -- severe consequences. Juries are notoriously ill prepared to make these complex decisions in law; they are easily swayed by shyster lawyers, and they have their own selfish motives that effect their decisions. It would be hard to say which of the two methods is the worse for society.

One final example of the "law of negative consequences" in the political arena and that is the problem of getting elected. I once had a conversation with an acquaintance that was running for political office about some of the abusive tactics of our government in the "War on Drugs". I asked why, if he was opposed to such tactics, didn't he take a stand against these abusive tactics and laws. He said he was opposed but to take a stand would mean he would not be elected. I said, "So?" Then he said, "Leon, I will not be able to do much in correcting these ills unless I am first elected."

OK, this is a well-known problem -- apparently, you have to lie to get elected. Or, to put it another way, to tell the truth results in severe "unintended consequences".


Political philosophy that emphasizes conserving as much as possible of the present economic, social, and political order. -- From the Greek Catalog: Philosophy
Conservative, n:
A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from a liberal, who wishes to replace them with others. -- Ambrose Bierce

This article would not be complete without mentioning the philosophy of Conservatism, of which its very foundation is based on the belief that "change is dangerous" and should be avoided if possible.

If what I am saying here has any validity, then the concept of conservatism would seem to be well founded. In the examples and concepts I have presented, we see that change of any kind is dangerous and complex. We see that it is not unusual for negatives consequences to exceed the positive consequences, or at least be almost equal. Given that, a rational person would avoid change unless the proposed change was thoroughly investigated for all possible consequences.

Edmund Burke, who is regarded by many as being the "Father of Conservatism", said this:
"Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite he placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot he free. Their passions forge their fetters."— National Assembly (IV. 319) [emphasis mine]

The discussion of Burke's philosophy in the book, The Rhetoric of Reaction, by Albert O. Hirschman, includes the statement:

Attempts to reach for liberty will make society sink into slavery, the quest of democracy will produce oligarchy and tyranny, and social welfare programs will create more, rather than less, poverty. Everything backfires.
The author, Albert O. Hirschman, states that this theme was a common belief of historians and philosophers of the eighteenth century. The example of the French Revolution confirmed this belief to many.


Every action in our lives touches on some chord that will vibrate in eternity. — Unknown

Any decision beyond the most insignificant will have a variety of consequences. We humans have at least two major problems with that. 1) We grossly underestimate the complexity of most situations and the impact of an "unnatural" change. And 2) we tend to see life in terms of absolutes and not in terms of marginal changes as it really is.

Yes, it appears that "Murphy's Law" and the subject at hand, the "Law of Unintended Consequences" result mostly from the inability of humans to comprehend the complexity of the results from the most trivial of decisions. And even if we could, the study of "chaos theory" seems to say that some results would be unpredictable no matter how much you know. Of course, that doesn't stop people from continuing to make decisions as if the desired consequence would be the only result. This is particularly true of the government where, for example, they still spend billions on weather forecasting when "chaos theory" insists that it will never work!

We are not conditioned to think "marginally". We should be. For if we really evaluated all of the consequences of specific decisions and evaluated the net change from the present situation, we would find that the net total change from the existing state is not likely to be much at all and may even be negative for most of the decisions we make.

An appreciation of the extraordinary complexities involved with the simplest of actions would benefit all of us but in particular, our politicians. For example, the invasion of other countries and/or forcing a new government and culture on them is sure to result in an abundance of "unintended consequences", but exactly what and how bad, we haven't a clue. A study of history would help but apparently our leaders are not big fans of history.

I close with the best example of the "Law of Unintended Consequences" and that is the tradeoff between freedom and state protection. Since we as a nation, have somehow (and I don't remember it being discussed, actually) decided that we must have more "security", then we must be prepared to accept the "unintended consequence" of less freedom. Maybe we ought to run the numbers on that calculation one more time before we are locked in with that decision!

S. Leon Felkins, Major, US Army (Ret)

Mr. Felkins is a retired former military officer, college professor, and computer systems engineer. He is now an activist in the fight for the reform of the forfeiture laws now plaguing the US and the world. He is presently serving as the Executive Director of F.E.A.R., the forfeiture reform advocacy group. In addition, he maintains a web page on Political Philosophy, "A Rational Life" and another on the history of politics, "The Political Almanac". Email is welcome.