Stove On Unintended Consequences

A few quotations, incomplete, on this important subject from Stove’s On Enlightenment.

A primitive society is being devastated by a disease, so you bring modern medicine to bear, and wipe out the disease, only to find that by doing so you have brought on a population explosion…You guarantee a minimum wage, and find that you have extinguished, not only specific industries, but industry itself as a personal trait…This is the oldest and best argument for conservatism: the argument from the fact that our actions almost always have unforeseen and unwelcome consequences. It is an argument from so great and so mournful a fund of experience, that nothing can rationally outweigh it. Yet somehow, at any rate in societies like ours, this argument never is given its due weight. When what is called a “reform” proves to be, yet again, a cure worse than the disease, the assumption is always that what is needed is still more, and still more drastic, “reform.”

It does not follow ,from something’s being morally wrong, that i ought to be removed. It does not follow that it would be morally preferable if that thing did not exist. It does not even follow that we have any moral obligation to try to remove it. X might be wrong, yet every alternative to X be as wrong as X is, or or more wrong. It might be that even any attempt to remove X is as wrong as X is, or more so. It might be that every alternative to X, and any attempt to remove X, though not itself wrong, inevitably has effects which are as wrong as X, or worse. The inference fails yet again if (as most philosophers believe) “ought” implies “can.” For in that case there are at least some evils, namely the necessary evils, which no on can have any obligation to remove.

This means a state which takes money away from people in whose hands it might create wealth, and gives it instead to people in whose hands it cannot possibly do so: the unemployed, the earners of very low incomes, the aged, the sick, the handicapped, unmarried mothers, etc., etc., etc. Millions more people have to be paid, of course, merely for administering this immense redistribution of wealth…A system which rewards the economically dependent, and penalizes the independent, must be a “positive feed back system” (as engineers say) for the creation of poverty.

But Malthus was convinced that communism would replace the existing comparative poverty of most by the absolute poverty of all, and that it would in the process, destroy “everything which distinguishes the civilized by the savage state.”

For “They all laughed at Christopher Columbus” led, by a transition both natural and reasonable, to, “It’s an outrageous proposal, but we’ll certainly consider it.” That in turn led, naturally enough to “We must consider it because it’s an outrageous proposal.”…

As to the weakness of the Columbus argument, it is perfectly glaring. No doubt it is true that, for any change for the better to have taken place, either in thought or in practice, someone first had to make a new departure. But is is equally true that someone first had to make a new departure in order for any change for the worse ever to have taken place. And there must have been at least as many proposed innovations which were, or would have been, for the worse as ones which were, our would have been, for the better. But if in the past bad innovations have been at least as common as good ones, then we have at least as much reason to conclude that we ought to discourage innovators in the future as to conclude that we ought to encourage them…

In fact, of course, innovators-for-the-worse have always been far more numerous than innovators-for-the-better: they always must be so. Consider the practical side first. Do you understand television sets well enough to be able to repair a non-functioning one or to improve a malfunctioning one? Probably not: very few do. And if you, being one of the great majority, nevertheless do set out to repair or improve a TV set, it is a million to one, because of the complexity of the thing, that you will make it worse if you change it at all. Now human societies, at least ones as large and as rich as ours, are incomparably more complex than TV sets, and in fact no one understand them well enough to repair or improve them…


  1. David

    Stove, interesting and worthwhile as he is, on some topics paints with too broad a brush. It has never been the case that everyone needs to know how to repair a television set. Societies develop a division of a labour and life proceeds.

    I think it is safe to say that no one understands all of medical practice in the 21st century whereas it might be possible to say that someone did in the 17th century. Yet, only a curmudgeon would suggest that there have been no improvements since the 17th century in the practice of medicine.

    Some innovations work out and others don’t but it is possible to develop techniques (research methods) to determine which ones work and which ones don’t. Drug tests, often the subject of discussion on this blog, are one example. More concern about uncertainty, another topic discussed on this blog, would be another example.

    Moving to the topic of ‘reform’ in general it is possible to agree that some ‘reforms’ make the situation worse than it had been. Stalin’s Russia is one telling example. But there are other more modest ‘reforms’ say in safety regulations which are an improvement.

    So, in contrast to some of what Stove argues, I would argue that positive innovation is possible but we need to look for both positive and negative (intended and unintended) consequences. Of course if we aren’t willing to proceed with caution then I would agree with the default position of not proceeding.

    There are two real world examples of ‘reforms gone wild’ in recent years: many of the solutions proposed to deal with possible climate change and the suite of changes to healthcare in the United States. Even cursory examination suggests in both cases that the negative and unintended consequences far outweigh any possible benefits.

  2. Peregrine John

    The excellent and (per Twain) awful German language has a word for this sort of thing:
    Schlimbesserung – meaning, something which is meant to improve matters but which instead makes things worse.

  3. George

    Million-to-one innovation is fine provided the proposer bears the burden of the associated risk – in that case it’s just a matter of freedom of thought and action. It is most dangerous, though, in the politically common case where the proposer bears no risk at all, and society is forced to pick up the pieces.

  4. Andrea Harris said it first, so I’ll just add that this sentence:

    A primitive society is being devastated by a disease, so you bring modern medicine to bear, and wipe out the disease, only to find that by doing so you have brought on a population explosion…

    is a pretty cold statement to make.

    “Disease? It’s a good thing. Decreases the surplus population.”

  5. Matt

    Bill Peschel,

    Yes, it is a cold statement, but not in the way you think. The statement isn’t that deisease is a good thing.

    This goes to the philosiphy behind the Federations prime directive in Star Trek.

    Modern advanced societies devolped a lot of things before and along with medicine that allow them to cope with the increases in life span that modern medicine brings (agricultural improvements being a major item).

    However if you go into a primitive society and introduce moder medicine without all those other things, then at the absolute best you will have traded one problem for another in the end making things niether better nor worse. Is disease worse than starvation?

    In the example given, most of the people saved from death by disease will end up dying of starvation instead as the society you introduced medicine to does not have the agracultural technology to feed the excess population.


  6. Doug M

    The Christopher Columbus segment reminds me of what Taleb refers to as “the narrative falicy.” Stories are written about the lucky few who took large gambles and ended up on top. The stories of the large numbers who took equally large risks and failed are never written. This leads to a skewed view of the relationships between risk and reward.

  7. Sander van der Wal

    Conservatism is for some peculiar reason never a return to a really primitive state, like the one enjoyed by the first Cro Magnons in Europe 35.000 years ago. One keeps wondering why.

  8. Briggs

    Bill, All

    There is no judgment implied in Stove’s example (one of several). He is just saying that actions have causes which you might not have anticipated, nor fully appreciated.

    Think of the “disease” being “predation” (this is no stretch: bacteria eat people). The animal who is no longer under the threat of being eaten is going to be awfully happy. But what of that animals’ victims? I have in mind the pythons that are wriggling (they say) through Florida swamps with no natural enemies. From the point of view of the python, no predators is a good thing.

  9. DAV

    Doug M, “skewed view of the relationships between risk and reward.”

    Presumably you don’t mean skewed in the low risk/high reward sense. That’s called welfare. High risk/high reward is not a skewed relationship. Believing a high risk guarantees a high reward is skewed. If it were guaranteed there would be no risk.

    A local state lottery’s motto is: “You can’t win if you don’t play”. IOW: zero risk (don’t play) equals no reward — guaranteed. That’s the best warranty you will ever get.

    And that may ultimately be the problem with Stove’s analysis: Maintaining status quo is the low risk option which does nothing to alleviate current risk. Unintended consequences are called that because they are unanticipated. It’s not possible to address them ahead of time. Trading one risk for another does carry a big payoff at times.

    One “unforeseen” consequence that never gets considered though: when the government starts passing out money, somebody will see an opportunity for personal wealth enhancement — guaranteed.

  10. dearieme

    One amusing feature of the “They all laughed at Christopher Columbus” argument is that the song goes on to allege an untruth, the absurd notion that Columbus was in a tiny minority in believing the world to be round. He was, however, in a tiny minority in believing it to be so small and Asia so large: the majority were right. Perhaps he was misled by whatever he knew about Iceland/Greenland/the Grand Banks: after all, the people whom the Vikings (and others?) had come across thereabouts might well be thought to look like Chinese or Japanese.

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