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Unintended consequences

The Law of Unintended Consequences is a feature of all organic systems, and distinguishes them from simple physical systems. A physical system can usually be controlled by a simple feedback system, which monitors some required value and adjusts some inputs to correct deviations. An organic system, particularly a system composed of interacting human beings, will, in the long term, not behave like this. It will evolve mechanisms that de-couple the required output from the controlled inputs. This general law has all sorts of corollaries in different fields.

Incentive payments

In any organisation, if an attempt is made to improve performance by offering bonuses for specific achievements, then behaviour will change so as to maximise those specific achievements at the expense of any other outputs.

This sounds good, but in practice it is hard to design achievement goals that really reflect the performance of the organisation as a whole. For example:


Any new law will have effects not forseen at the time it was enacted.

The Beer Orders appeared in the UK in the early 1990s. At the time most pubs were owned by big brewers, and appeared to be taking advantage of a monopoly situation. The legislation was intended to force brewers to sell off most of their pubs, and to allow those they retained to sell at least some beer from small independent brewers. It imagined a return to idyllic pubs with owner landlords all selling local brews. It bombed. Some of the brewers decided they preferred owning pubs and sold the brewing side, most of the pubs that were sold went in bulk to new, huge pub-owning chains. Brewers consolidated even further. Choice went down.

Never believe an authority attempting to pass a law against Y which taken literally outlaws legal and accepted activity X, when it claims that there is no intention to act against X; after enactment the law will be taken as literally as possible by the enforcement authorities, especially if it makes their job easier; the intention of the legislators is immaterial.

For this reason, it is essential for single-interest groups to keep up with proposed legislation and lobby for modifications where potential side-effects are possible; many laws are promoted by single-interest groups and they cannot be trusted to consider anything beyond their own interests.

©2007 Nigel Bromley - 2007-04-21 -> 2007-04-21
+44 7010 700642


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