Sunday, January 29, 2006


In looking at all the things that seem to be going wrong in the world, thoughtful analysts often point to the law of unintended consequences.  While recognized centuries before, this idea was brought into the contemporary discourse by sociologist Robert K. Merton in The Unanticipated Consequences of Purpose Social Action written in 1936.  “Chance consequences”, he wrote, “are those which are occasioned by the interplay of forces and circumstances which are so complex and numerous that prediction of them is quite beyond our reach.”  Without question, that is often the case, especially for most of us mere mortals who go about our daily business not always thinking through the next step or “what might happen if”.  Recognizing that limitation, we nonetheless are much more forgiving of actions that lead to unintended consequences by the young than by the experienced.  Indeed, integral to maturity is gaining a greater sensitivity to potential consequences.  Managing what we do and what it may yield is essential to our interpersonal relationships in every aspect of our lives.  Throwing up our hands and saying the consequences were unintended is so often a convenient and transparent cop out. 

We expect our leaders to be mature, and most importantly to think ahead about the ramifications of their actions.  It isn’t that they don’t get caught in the unexpected from time to time, but that being the norm is intolerable.  Perhaps asking more of them than we ask of ourselves is unfair, but isn’t that why they get the big bucks (real and/or psychic)?  There isn’t a leader in the world today who didn’t want to be where she or he is, and that includes those who are seen as being unexpectedly thrust into power.  Remember, to be chosen they had to be in place and where they position themselves is rarely an accident.  The reigns of leadership normally fall to those with unbridled ambition.  They wanted the job (badly) and as the much quoted philosopher Harry Truman might have said, “cop outs don’t cut it”.

Unintended consequences usually result from what are purported to be purposeful rational decisions – like arming Saddam during his war against our enemy Iran, supporting of Islamists in Afghanistan and other places to subvert the spread of Communism, holding on to Palestinian land in the name of security, casting a blind eye on repressive regimes to keep our energy-dependent economy going, just to name a few.  But as Merton pointed out, “it must not be inferred that purposive action implies 'rationality' of human action.”  Translated, some of our actions are stupid rather than rational or to put it more politely, ill conceived and not thought through when they should be.  In that regard, I would suggest that much of turmoil that we are now witnessing around the globe, as I pointed out with regard to the Hamas victory, is more in the nature of predictable rather than unintended consequences.  Decision makers at best should have known better, and in some cases acted with such opportunistic self interest that they apparently didn’t care.  When our leaders (and that is by no means restricted to those currently in power) act with only today in mind they risk tomorrow.  They do so consciously and recklessly.  One of the downsides of term limits is that they know someone else will have to pick up the pieces or live with the terrible consequences – "it will be on her watch, not mine".  When we don’t consider consequences today, we act particularly irresponsibly. In a world of real, as opposed to imagined, WMDs that’s playing Russian roulette with our children’s lives, and in all likelihood with our own as well.

It’s not that I don’t admit to unintended consequences, but only that there are far fewer of hem than we are often led to believe.  Making deals with the proverbial devil is not something new.  Sometimes we excuse that by blithely saying, it’s better to deal with the devil we know than one whom we don’t.  But that is the biggest copout of all.  In most cases we know exactly what were doing, with whom we are engaged and what is like to flow from that.  We know that borrowing money from a loan shark is far riskier than from a reputable bank. Perhaps the bank will put us into credit-ruining collection but they are unlikely to break our legs or worse for non-payment.  We’re not the first generation to act opportunistically, to claim that what happened as a result amounted to unintended consequences, but in following this path any further, we could be the last.  Perhaps that’s not probable, but we better start acting seriously as if it is possible.  What we need today is not more of a “my gosh” attitude, I didn’t mean that to happen, or much of the same.  What we need is the courage to change direction, to think through where we are headed and what that is likely to bring.  We have to start spending more time considering alternative and safer routes, correcting course and most of all taking more control of the consequences that follow from our actions. 

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