The Law of Unintended Consequences

Let’s face it – we are not as smart as we would like to think.  How many times have we tried to fix one thing and end up breaking something else instead? This is a scenario commonly known as The Law of Unintended Consequences.

Ironically, this seems to be especially true when we introduce new safety measures.

Here are just a couple of examples which have produced a bullet in the toe of society:

1.  Protecting Children from Sex Offenders.

Here in the U.S. each state is required to keep a registry of sex offenders.  People convicted of “sex crimes” are put on this list, and often remain on that list for life.

Being on that list includes:

  • Having your name, address and photo published onilne
  • Severe restrictions on where you can live (e.g. distances from schools or “where children may congregate”)
  • The need to tell employers you are on the list (good luck getting a job with that on your résumé).

But that’s good right?  We need to keep these rapists and child molesters away from our children.

I’d say yes if it were not for the fact that a recent study in Georgia concluding that the majority of the people on the list are not actually dangerous.  The types of activity that can land you on that list (for life remember) includes things such as consensual sex between a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old, visiting a prostitute, streaking, and even (in 13 states) urinating in public!

Imagine that!  You decide to do the responsible thing and walk (not drive) to a bar, get caught ‘short’ on the way home and pee against a tree.  The next thing you know, you’ve been arrested, lost your job (along with any chance of getting one again), are forced to move, and have your name and face plastered all over the web as a sex offender.  You could lose your family too, unless they are particularly strong-willed and supportive.

Because of the wide variety of offenses that will land you on that list, America now has well over 600,000 people registered.

I’m all for making things safer for people – especially children – but we are throwing the baby out with the bath water when our net drags in frisky teenagers and people with weak bladders.

2.  Efforts to Protect People from Terrorism

Since 911 Americas have watched as their personal freedoms be systematically eroded in the name of safety. 

But mixed in with these big-ticket items such as illegal wiretaps and torture are ridiculous limitations on toiletries allowed on planes and, more recently, the introduction of full body scanners.  I bet interest in joining the TSA went up when those babies were introduced – probably by the small percentage of people who actually should be on the list in item 1.

Look – this is very simple.  Terrorists don’t want to beat you – they want to destroy your way of life.  And if your lives have been significantly altered by an act of terrorism (and any traveler will tell you it has) then they have won. 

If people really want to be protected, then maybe the free market can take care of it.  Imagine this scenario:  People who are willing to swap speed and privacy for a modicum of safety (and don’t kid yourself how effective the TSA are) can travel on “Safe Airlines Inc.”, while the rest of us, accept the risk and go about our daily business of traveling unmolested.

Or, to quote my wise friend Ben Franklin, “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

3.  Efforts to Limit Insider Trading.

In an effort to stop insider trading wrecking the markets, regulators imposed rules requiring all firms to keep records of all electronic communications for 7 years (or more).

Because of the immense cost involved in capturing, monitoring and  storing all of this data, most companies simply opt to block employees’ access to internet tools such as chat, forums, and social media. 

Effective use of these tools can greatly enhance efficiency and job performance, but they are now denied to most American financial institutions.  Meanwhile, companies in other countries are free to reap enormous benefits from those same restricted sources.

Do these rules stop illegal activities?  Of course not!  Anyone dumb enough to use a company  email system to discuss their illegal activites when they have a personal smartphone in their pocket deserves to be caught.  Nothing is being gained by this – unless you happen to own shares in Iron Mountain.

Who gets punished?

Like so many ill conceived laws and regulations, the people affected are the ones who actually follow the rules. Criminals are hardly likely to read FINRA 10-06 and conclude that they shouldn’t continue with their fraud because it would be wrong.

We need to stop this madness.

  • We need to stop being so black and white.  Life just isn’t like that.
  • We need to provide principals and guidelines that everyone instinctively understands, not rules and regulations that need armies of lawyers to interpret them.
  • We need to start putting the human back into the equation so that when people do stupid stuff (and we all do), common sense (and not black and white rules) can prevail.
  • And we need some sort of “do-over” clause built into laws which says a law can be overturned or amended by simple majority voting of the people when we finally figure out that, once again, we’ve screwed things up.

Because the saddest thing about unintended consequences…is that they are still consequences.

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3 Comments

Filed under Children, Life - or something like it, The Human Condition, Travel

3 responses to “The Law of Unintended Consequences

  1. I so agree. One thing I find scariest in all this black/white is our kids can not just be kids any more and the technology makes it so easy for them to screw up. 15 years old boys messing around and taking a picture looking down some girls shirt and they send it to a friend could land them on a list for life. Of-course I don’t condone this behavior but kids do stupid things..often running it by us first.
    Putting the “human” back into our relationships is so key. We have a common agreement between parent/friends–call the parents FIRST not the police and make an honest stab at trying to work things out.

    • I wish more parents would take such a practical approach to problem solving. Communities are a lot less connected these days and so working towards resolving things doesn’t really seem to happen anymore – people just go straight to court/the police. It’s a real shame.

      One of my favorite quotes about children not behaving perfectly is by a child psychologist. He tells parents “Ahh…I see. Your child is behaving childishly.” Perfect!

  2. Pretty good post. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the Homeland Security bit. But it’s true, it’s an ironic world we live in. Nice one…

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