Unintended Consequences

by thoughtsatlarge

Exhibit A

Exhibit A

History is replete with cases of unintended consequences arising out of well-intentioned societal advancements. Popularized in the 1930’s by American sociologist Robert Merton (famous for coining the terms “role model” and “self-fulfilling prophesy”), unintended consequences spoke to the phenomena of either a positive, negative or a so-called “perverse incentive” resulting from social changes. Adam Smith described a positive unintended consequence in Chapter 2 of Book IV of his 1776 opus An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations when he wrote:

But the annual revenue of every society is always precisely equal to the exchangeable value of the whole annual produce of its industry, or rather is precisely the same thing with that exchangeable value. As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.

Summarized earlier in Chapter 2 of Book I as:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.

Of course, negative unintended consequences are easier to see. Prohibition lead to the rise of organized crime. The “drug war” lead to powerful drug cartels. The automobile lead to the long commute and explosion of fast food chains. But we are in the midst of one right now that casts a pall on our country like no other.

The technological revolution seen in the past two generations has produced incredible advancements. Consider that your iPhone has about 128,000 times the processing power of the Apollo Guidance Computer that took Apollo 11 to the moon and runs about 1,000 times faster. Consider that that same iPhone’s 64 GB internal hard drive can hold over 125,000 books! Now consider the vast capabilities of the internet. YouTube alone has over 800,000,000 unique user visits each month. Seventy-two hours of video are uploaded every minute! In 2011, YouTube had more than 1 trillion views (140 views for every person on earth). Never before has the entirety of human knowledge been more easily accessible to more people. Don’t know the answer to a question? Google it! Here’s your answer in 0.0013 seconds.

However, a strange thing has happened along the way, an awful unintended consequence. Rather than this ocean of information carrying us toward further enlightenment, we tend to cling to the same life boat of data as those who think the same as us, while drowning in confirmation biases and epistemic closure. Debate is dead. Discourse nonexistent. We only listen to those with whom we agree. Cable television has spawned an entire industry of “news” channels which cater to whatever political bend you subscribe to, with no room for dissenting voices, except when used to ridicule.

This cultural disconnect was made plain for the world to see on CNN January 7th when Piers Morgan hosted Alex Jones of Austin, Texas. The vitriol displayed by Mr. Jones toward Mr. Morgan could have been considered comical were it not so disturbing. The hatred and nonsensical blather uttered live on television made me embarrassed to be both an American and living in Texas. Unfamiliar with Mr. Jones, but learning that he had a radio program, I sought him out online and listened to his show the following day. I am now convinced that nowhere on earth is there a better example of epistemic closure than in Mr. Jones and his sycophantic followers. Free as he is under the first amendment to spew his hatred, fear mongering and paranoid conspiracy theories to anyone who will listen, his delusions and incitement borders on sedition and strolls way past the border into mental depravity land. And while his personal opinions are deranged enough, what is most troubling is the fact that he has over a million listeners each with an unregulated arsenal at their twitchy, trigger finger’s disposal.

How can we have a national debate on gun control when the opposing sides neither want debate nor entertain concession? Discourse is dead. How can we have a debate on government protecting its citizens from dangers both foreign and domestic when one side sees the other as part of a “global New World Order bent on the establishment of a tyrannical, dictatorial government run by international banks?” At least that is how I understood Mr. Jones’s nonsensical rant. How can we move this country forward when gun violence caused by mentally ill white men with assault weapons frames one side of the argument while the NRA calls for more guns to protect us against the (racially couched) terms “gang bangers” and “crack heads” and their throw away handguns? Rational discussion is moot. I was physically nauseated by these paranoid delusions of a madman with a microphone, his group of tin foil hat wearing, sycophantic miscreants and their survivalist smog. If ever there was a case for mental health concerns being a reason to question an individual’s right to own anything more dangerous than an elastic band, Mr. Jones is Exhibit A.

While I hope cooler heads on both sides of this discussion at least allow for a discussion, perhaps the national exposure enjoyed by Mr. Jones in his “thrashing” of Mr. Morgan will rouse silent Americans from their intransigence so that we may stem the localized flooding of bloodshed across America and face this national horror head-on. Wouldn’t that be a nice unintended consequence?