Notable: Unintended Consequences

Take the 1973 Endangered Species Act, for example. The law allows the federal government to restrict landowners’ use of their properties if a listed species’s habitat is discovered there. Such a law, though well-intentioned, pits the interests of landowners against the interest of animals such as the red-cockaded woodpeckers, which nest in trees. In fact, in 2006, landowners in one North Carolina town clear-cut miles of wooded lots to avoid having their pine trees become “infested” with woodpeckers and thus come under the regulations of the federal government. The good intentions of this government policy actually drove landowners to destroy rather than preserve a habitat for endangered species.

Other examples abound: Laws that raise the minimum wage also lower the number of workers that businesses hire; welfare programs that discourage work and marriage help to entrench people in poverty and government dependence; government policies designed to increase home ownership among the poor inflate housing prices and encourage many to buy homes they cannot afford, contributing to an economic recession felt across the nation.

What matters isn’t simply what we want policies to produce but what they actually produce. Policymakers need to bring to bear not just a moral desire to help the poor but an informed understanding of how certain actions lead to predictable reactions by all parties involved.

In sum, a moral evaluation of public policy cannot stop short with the good intentions that go into crafting a law or government program. We have a moral obligation to pay attention to the other side of the equation as well—its actual, and often predictable, outcomes. Richards suggests that a great place to begin is for every policymaker, upon encountering proposed legislation, to ask, “And then what will happen?”


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