Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt wrote this Freakonomics column, which concludes, “if there is any law more powerful than the ones constructed in a place like Washington, it is the law of unintended consequences.” What I’m wondering is, what sort of law is this? Obviously it’s not a real “law” like the law of gravity or even one of those social-science laws like Gresham’s law or the statement that democracies usually don’t fight each other. But it’s supposed to be more than just a joke in the manner of Murphy’s law, right?
I’ve remarked previously that unintended consequences often were actually intended but Dubner and Levitt’s examples seem actually unintended. So these seem like real examples, but I don’t know what it takes for this to be a “law.” Surely there must be dozens of other examples of intended consequences that actually happened? Or unintended consequences which, although unfortunate, were minor compared to the intended consequences? The Freakanomics article was interesting; now I want to hear a statement of the law itself…
P.S. Interesting comments below. Also, Alex Tabarrok has further elaboration:
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.