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Friday, 13 April 2007

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Politics is always reactive. Oh, ministers and governments like to kid themselves they're leading, that they're proactive, that they're initiating change, that they're at the forefront of social revolution. The reality is that they're just reacting.

Take the old licencing laws, dating from the 1915 Defence of the Realm Act, that decreed that pubs in London should be closed between 2.30pm and 5pm. By the time the government got around to abolishing the restriction, it was so widely flouted so as to be unenforceable anyway. There were fears from employers that it would encourage staff to stay in the pub all afternoon rather than returning to the office. Almost overnight, the tradition of a couple of pints at lunchtime all but disappeared, a real 'Life on Mars' change, and thousands of pubs got converted into flats.

Women who fought so hard for equality and 'liberation' at the end of the last century never imagined that what they'd won was the right for young women to be lads - get out of their heads on cheap alcopops and end up in some stranger's bed as a compliant sex object.

The internet was hailed as a tool to open up a world of knowledge to help schoolchildren learn; it also enabled My Space, Bebo and cyber-bullying that led to the tragic suicide of a 13 year old boy recently. Mobile phones that parents imagined would allow them to be in touch with their kids have acquired cameras that have widened the risk of the sexualisation of their children.

And just as business models for a multiplicity of new commercial digital TV channels forecast a bonanza of advertising revenue, the public switched off their (state regulated) TVs in droves and turned to their (unregulated) computers instead.

These and a whole host of other unintended consequences mean that pressure is constantly on government to legislate, regulate and react to a mass of factors unforeseen when they drew up their manifesto. And in a centralised State, government is happy to follow this agenda; "we'll introduce new controls ..." "we'll bring in requirements..." "we'll act to ensure...". It all creates the illusion of a government in control, and reinforces the dangerous myth of a direct caring relationship between the State and the Individual.

In reality its all no more than building sandcastles to defend against the tide. And as the State grows ever more powerful to exercise care and control over the minutae of our lives, it consumes ever more of our national wealth and resources. And it can never, ever see where the next problem is coming from.

Powell famously said "All political careers end in failure."

Perhaps if politicians didn't play at Cnuts in believing they could halt the tide of the unintended consequences of social and technological evolution they may be able to claim success.


Newmania said...

Yes , why do we never ask politicians what they are going to stop doing ?

( Well I do actually whenever they let me anywhere near one)

nick drew said...

Raedwal if I may interject one of my little empirical points (which i collect rather avidly, along with my snowdrift of cuttings)

just recently i was dealing with a govt department (no names no packdrill) which is considering in great detail certain mildly interventionist measures that many of a free-market disposition in the 'relevant sector of the economy' (sorry can't be specific) feel are merited. Failure to get this decision right will be felt by all, with serious political fallout shortly thereafter.

i can report that they are paralysed by fear of 'unintended consequences': so this aspect is not lost on them (in their better moments) - & quite properly so.

But paralysis is not necessarily a good thing either. Quite objectively there are some dilemmas out there (unless you are the kind of destructive anarcho-libertarian that mr mania lambasts from time to time)

Newmania said...

Crickey Nick you wrapped that up in a mystery?

nick drew said...

Yes I fear I lack the economic style of mr slicker. Another time I will simply say

Take it from me fellas, the govt worries about unintended consequences

and rely on my unquestioned authority to persuade you all