Friday, January 25, 2008

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Alex Tabarrok:

The law of unintended consequences is what happens when a simple system tries to regulate a complex system. The political system is simple, it operates with limited information (rational ignorance), short time horizons, low feedback, and poor and misaligned incentives. Society in contrast is a complex, evolving, high-feedback, incentive-driven system. When a simple system tries to regulate a complex system you often get unintended consequences.

Unintended consequences are not restricted to government regulation of society but can also happen when government tries to regulate other complex systems such as the ecosystem (e.g. fire prevention policy that reduces forest diversity and increases mass fires, dam building that destroys wet lands and makes floods more likely etc.) Unintended consequences can even happen in the attempted regulation of complex physical systems (here is a classic example involving turbulence).

Does the law of unintended consequences mean that the government should never try to regulate complex systems? No, of course not, but it does mean that regulators should be humble (no trying to remake man and society) and the hurdle for regulation should be high.

Read the whole thing.

Here is Russ Roberts with more on the connection between complexity and unintended consequences.

(HT Cafe Hayek)

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