I’ll try to clarify my recent entry on unintended consequences by focusing on a less politically-loaded example.
Millions of people in south Asia are exposed to high levels of arsenic in their drinking water. It’s a natural contaminant (something to do with the soil chemistry) but it’s become an increasingly important problem in the past decades because people have been digging millions of deep (~ 100 feet) tubewells. The background is that the surface water is often contaminated, and international organizations have been encouraging the locals to dig these tubewells which draw clean water from hundreds of feet below ground. Unfortunately, some of that water is contaminated with arsenic. A true unintended consequence. But what to do next?
There are various solutions out there, including a low-cost device for purifying surface water. My connection to this is that I’ve been involved in a project to give information to people in Bangladesh about where and how deep to dig to find arsenic-free deep water. In some places you have to drill hundreds of feet deep, and this can be expensive (relative to Bangladeshis’ incomes). So we’re setting up an insurance system for people there, so they can pay a little bit more but be assured of eventually getting a safe well, or their money back. The idea is to provide incentives for well-drillers also, to set up an ongoing system where there is trust and so that safe wells can be installed.
More unintended consequences?
Two concerns about unintended consequences arise. First, on the physical level, there is a concern that, if people build wells taking clean water from deep aquifers, they’ll start using that water more and more (just as we in the developed world flush our toilets with fresh water, etc), leading to changes in the water flow that might bring arsenic down there or have other bad consequences. I don’t know enough to evaluate this concern so I’m just trusting my colleagues on this.
The second concern is something I mentioned to my collaborators the other day: should we really be offering this insurance scheme at all? The goal of the program is to get people to dig deeper wells than they otherwise would’ve done, by setting up incentives for customers and well-drillers to get together. (I should explain that this is intended to be a revenue-neutral, “at cost,” system: not a subsidy for Bangladeshis to dig wells, but not a moneymaker for us, either. The money would be made by the drillers, and this would provide an incentive for the program to continue.)
Anyway, I asked my collaborators whether maybe we shouldn’t be doing this program at all, since we’re trying to get people to do something they wouldn’t do themselves.
One of my colleagues replied that, no, it was a good idea, and for us not to do it would be “paternalistic” in that we’re saying that we know what’s best for the locals. We can offer the insurance and they can decide. But, wait! I said. If we really want to be non-paternalistic, we wouldn’t get involved at all, right?
It seems that these debates come down to the choice of the default. If the default is to do our insurance program, then it’s paternalistic to consider not doing it. But if the default is for us to stop messing around in Bangladesh, then it’s paternalistic to try to motivate them to dig deep wells. (The unintended consequence of the mid-1990s intervention–encouraging moderately deep tube wells–is cautionary, but it’s not clear that this should be a message that we shouldn’t get involved.)