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The Spectre of Unintended Consequences

November 17, 2013

It is this spectre that haunts me, that makes me feel hopeless in the face of social problems. I have seen many progressives: single-minded and seemingly so sure and confident of their pronouncements and the benefit they will bring to us all. But ever aware am I of those niggly little unintended consequences that always seem to put a spanner in the work of just about any and all well-intentioned social reforms.

From this point I then see the progressive as little more than a moraliser who likes the sound of his own voice a bit too much, and who is too obsessively one-dimensional in his thinking. He is not making society any better, but he is certainly allowing himself to feel he is doing this, to quieten that inner voice of a guilty conscience.

It is all too easy to spout about equality, and I don’t deny often progressives really do believe what they are saying and with great fervour. I like the idea of it myself. Of course I do, I am poor and may well benefit from it! But it is very dangerous when you start believing your own hype in such a single-minded way.

Yes, we want to put controls on the rich, we need to find ways to stop exploitation and bullying of certain groups of humans by others. But lets not lose sight of this fundamentally good practical idea, by getting caught up in abstract, grand speculations about equality. We need to inspire and inflame peoples imaginations with progressive ideals. But I think appealing to equality so generically as some sort of god/nature-given right, yes it certainly creates an inflammation, but of the bad kind, the kind that can cause chronic  injury.

Take the equality of opportunity of education idea of new labour in the early 21st century and late 20th century. It was a good-intentioned idea on the part of many involved I am sure. But those ghostly unintended consequences soon appeared to haunt it. Education standards of exams lowered to allow more people to pass, vocational training was under played in favor of degrees, with little vocational plan at the end of it, so more and more foreign workers had to be brought in to fill this vacuum, thereby disturbing and destroying local communities. Ultimately, the funding of it all bankrupted the government who could not keep up with the demand for it.

A whole class of disenfranchised people arose who had come to expect from education something the government could not sustainably supply them with, and they ended up revolting in student strikes around the country about the massive increase in cost of tuition fees. So often progressive ideals end up in luddite style displays of inaction like this, which, lets face it, is what a strike amounts to. Do we really want to keep repeating this sad, sorry story?

The spectre of unintended consequences is always there on the horizon for me. It is why I don’t rush to embrace various simplistic progressive ideals. In my daily life I despise bullying behavior and exploitation and will act against it. For me, it is much better to show moral strength in the moment when it happens, rather than after the fact when it is often driven by obsessive, one-minded emotions such as revenge that cloud your rational faculties and appreciation of the situation you face. It is at times like this when it is easy to rush in and ignore those unintended consequences, until it is too late.

Of course, there is a danger of being aware of the spectre of unintended consequences. That we become paralysed by it into fear and inaction. It need not be this way. We can find ways to do good progressive things in our lives. Just don’t get caught up in yours or someone else’s fervour about grand ideals such as equality. If you do you can guarantee you are being taken over by negative emotions, as counter-intuitive as this may initially seem. But stop and think about the psychology behind this ideal. It is driven by a past grievance about an opportunity others got that you didn’t. This negative emotion is what is inflamed in us by those who grandly proclaim this ideal, and so it is actually an example itself of exploitation of weak people by a more powerful person.

I have talked here very negatively about equality, and it is because I have seen in action the unintended consequences of its apparent adoption by the new labor government of the UK in the late 20th century, and I have seen how most who proclaim it do so as an irresponsible use of the power of their social position. For me it is a naive, childish ideal. A distraction from the much more real moral issue of exploitation that we face in daily life and need practical help and guidance with.

Let me conclude with a basic practical principle we should always start from in all our social reasonings:

The first source of our judgement of a situation is always our own inner moral sense of compassion for our surroundings. Never let some heady, hopeful, future ideal distract you from this.

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One Comment
  1. And don’t think those progressives with their single-minded pronouncements don’t have their fears as well. I believe with many of them, the louder and more boisterous the pronouncements, the more fear lies below the surface.

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