Commentary: Obama must avoid unintended consequences

This editorial appeared in The Olympian.

As many have commented, when Barack Obama takes over as president Jan. 20, he will face a confluence of troubles not seen by a new president since the days of Franklin Roosevelt: two wars, an economic meltdown, lack of comprehensive health care coverage and global warming, to name a few. There will be great impetus to respond to these issues with new, complex programs. While most observers agree that these intractable problems will require creative new responses, the law of unintended consequences suggests a note of caution.

The law of unintended consequences provides that actions of people, and especially governments, always have unanticipated results.

This law goes back as far as economist Adam Smith in the 1700s. But Robert Merton in the 1930s provided the most comprehensive analysis of the law and its effects. While he identified five sources of unanticipated consequences, two seem most likely to lead to disasters — ignorance and error.

The Obama administration must keep those two in mind.

Recent news reports provide a poignant example of the law of unintended consequences.

Nebraska passed a statute to create a safe harbor for young mothers unable to care for babies. The goal was to keep them from abandoning the babies or even killing them. Soon parents from around the country were bringing their older children to Nebraska hospitals and leaving them.

The parents, when later asked, said they could not cope with a child (or children) who was out of control. The abandoned older children are a sad reminder of desperate families in need of help.

To read the complete editorial, visit The Olympian.