The Law of Unintended Consequences isn’t written into the statute books, or taught in law school, though maybe it should be because it rules over our lives with a stronger hand than almost any ordinance.
Broadly stated, the LoUC says that if you do A, intent on causing B, you might unknowingly cause C, a result you never anticipated. For instance. If you go back 30 years, when cellphones were first being rolled out — as car phones, heavy bricks bolted in your trunk — they were presented as something that contractors at construction sites and traveling salesmen on the road would use to save having to spend time seeking out a pay phone. And if you asked back then, “And how will cellphones someday dramatically affect the racial dialogue in this country?” you’d have gotten a blank look, because nobody could have foreseen that each phone would come with a high-quality video camera and citizens wielding those cameras would document the tendency of urban police to brutalize black people and the resultant images would spark outrage. That’s what happened. But is not the best example of the Law of Unintended Consequences, since cellphones weren’t created to boost the cops. The most satisfying examples of the LoUC contain a delicious irony, where not only does something unexpected happen, but that unexpected thing is the opposite of what you were trying to do, like the anti-campus drinking programs that were found to cause college students to drink more. Or in 2000 when a Chicago Public Schools effort to encourage parents to walk their kids to the first day of classes led to a quarter of the students — some 100,000 kids — not showing up at all, after embarrassed parents who couldn’t walk their children to school kept them home instead.The Law of Unintended Consequences is, in part, a function of complex systems, which is why it’s so prevalent in environmental matters, when animals imported for Small Purpose A instead cause Huge Problem B. Fifty pair of European Starlings were released in New York’s Central Park in 1890 and 1891 by a group trying to bring all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare to this country, a lofty goal which no doubt brings cold comfort to those shouldering the $800 million worth of crop damage and disease that the starlings cause each year. My favorite LoUC environment story involves an Inuit tribe in Canada. Deprived of their livelihood — hunting caribou — by meddling environmentalists, the tribe sold their land to petroleum developers. You have to love that. Our recent plastic bag law in Chicago, which went into effect Aug. 1, might not be up there with the European Starlings or the Canadian hunting grounds, but it has the same exquisite irony. Last year, the geniuses in City Council, having abandoned the idea of addressing the city’s actual problems, decided to go after flimsy plastic bags. It seems Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st) saw one stuck in a tree. So they passed a law banning lightweight bags at chain stores. But they allowed thicker, supposedly re-usable bags. Do you see the problem here? They didn’t. I have on my desk, a pre-law Walgreens bag and a post-law Walgreens bag. The former is a thin affair and weighs 5 grams. The new bag is sturdier and includes an exhortation, “Please reuse or recycle at a participating store.” It also weighs 21 grams. So the Chicago City Council, hoping to reduce the amount of plastic in landfills, quadrupled the amount of plastic in each bag that goes into landfills. Thanks guys. To be generous, maybe thicker bags will nudge consumers toward more recycling. Maybe this effort is part of the great societal shift toward living in a more renewable world. It’s possible. No error is without some good. Still, thicker disposable plastic bags — Jewel-Osco is also using them to thwart the law — was not what the City Council had in mind. Moreno, who would not return my call Thursday, said in June, when environmentalists first flagged this problem, that the city might “change the ordinance and make it even stricter,” perhaps by “not allowing [stores] to give away free bags.” Not allowing stores to give away bags! That’s the solution. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’ll just make the problem worse in some unforeseen manner. You can try to thwart the Law of Unintended Consequences but, being a law, it has a tendency to thwart you.
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