Unintended Consequences: What Did We Do? (Part 1)

“When two objects collide, there’s always damage . . . of a collateral nature”

Professor Moriarty

Sherlock Holmes Meets Professor Moriarty

Sherlock Holmes meets his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, face-to-face in A Game of Shadows.  Detective and villain size each other up, announcing their intentions for the coming conflict.  In a spirit of diplomacy, Holmes asks his adversary if Mr. Watson, Holmes’ companion, could be left out of the fray, now that he is married.  Moriarty explains that this is impossible, that there are always unintended consequences to any engagement.

The concept of unintended consequences happens everywhere in life.  Consider these famous lines:

  • Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
  • Be careful what you wish for.
  • Flapping butterfly’s wings in one hemisphere creates a tornado in the other.

In one way or another, these aphorisms speak the same truth: every action has a consequence, intended or not.

During the lead up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Secretary of Defense Colin Powell famously used the Pottery Barn analogy “If you break it, you buy it.”  His point was clear.  If the U.N. saw clear justification for military moves against Saddam Hussein’s regime, it would bear the consequences of its actions.  Powell foresaw the inevitable.  Every military intervention has a cost, some of which we do not plan.

Christian societies called “Temperance Unions” planned to outlaw alcoholic beverages in the U.S.  Collective efforts to curtail alcohol sale, transport, and consumption produced the 18th Amendment to The Constitution in 1919.  During the next 15 years, organized crime ran rampant throughout America, circumventing the law, later repealed by the 21st Amendment.   Did the Temperance societies see the violent end result of their efforts?  Probably not.

The Box, a 2009 film, presented individuals with a proposition.  A person will receive one million dollars for simply pushing the button in a box delivered to their home.  As a result, however, the individual is told that a person somewhere in the world, unknown to them, will die.  But nothing is, as it seems.  People may think they are unaffected when indeed the impact of any decision strikes close to home.

Decisions sometimes take the form of the classic “make a wish.”  What a man will do with three wishes is the premise for W.W. Jacobs’ story “The Monkey’s Paw.”  The first wish comes true but tragedy results.  Wishes two and three are then enacted to stop the first.  But to what end?  The reader is left to ponder the proverb, “Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.”

“Leave well enough alone” is another universal proverb worth pondering in the movie The Butterfly Effect.  The movie’s title supposes the theory that the beating of a butterfly’s wings in one hemisphere is responsible for storms in the other.  The film’s premise leaves the audience to ponder, “If I had the ability to change the past, would I . . . should I?”  Human choices always have consequences, intended or not.

Policy choices—political, educational, business—at times may create unintended cultural consequences. For instance, conservatives encouraged states to create laws defining marriage between a man and a woman in the 1990’s.  Now that liberals are using the same tactic to apply marriage to ‘same-sex’ partners in the 21st century, conservatives must ask was the original tactic beneficial?

Political uprisings reflect the universal sentiment, “better the devil I know, than the devil I don’t.”  In Egypt the people rioted against Hosni Mubarak because they were economically depressed.  Egyptians have now rioted against Mohamed Mursi because they are being tyrannically repressed.  We cannot always foresee how our decisions will create unintended consequences.

“What we see may not be what is unseen” was a warning Frederic Bastiat gave to his country.  Bastiat was a French economist, statesman, and author who lived from 1801 to 1850.  Before and during the 1848 revolution, France was rapidly embracing socialism: taxes from the French people would support the programs created by French politicians.  Bastiat’s last essay, “What is Seen and What is Not Seen,” was a alarm, left unheeded.  In a paraphrase, Bastiat said

An act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects.  The first consequences are immediate, they are seen; we are fortunate if we anticipate later consequences, these are unseen.  A small, present good may turn out to have disastrous consequences.  A person must learn to discern between the fruit of what is seen and the destruction yet unseen.

Professor Moriarty was right.  “When two objects collide, there’s always damage . . . of a collateral nature.”  We make decisions.  We formulate choices.  We create laws.  We follow politicians.  We construct policies.  We craft economies.

And we live with the consequences, intended or not.  [Part Two next week.]

Mark believes the consequences of Leviticus 26 ought to be taught from pastors, parents, politicians, and professors everywhere.  

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