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‘The Best-Laid Plans…’

“Quite often good things have hurtful consequences. There are instances of men

who have been ruined by their money or killed by their courage”

Aristotle

Actions have consequences. Whatever we do in both our private and public lives has consequences. The policies that we enact on the local, state, and national levels affect individuals, groups, and society at large—and they may do so in different ways. I even heard someone recently argue that policies do not matter that much, and what matters in the real world are their consequences. There are, however, all sorts of consequences—but we rarely consider the wide range of effects that our actions and policies may have in the heat and excitement of making policy decisions, where we tend to focus narrowly upon their desirable consequences. If that is true, then the discussions of the great variety of potential consequences should have a much more prominent place in our public policy discussions than they usually do.

One of the most prevalent comments about the consequences that I hear is that they are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It is understandable why people may talk this way about the consequences of their actions in their personal lives. But I do not think that this is an appropriate way to talk about the consequences of our policies, because the actions we take to implement them will typically benefit people with certain values, interests, and goals and hurt those with different values, interests, and goals. I think that it would be better to simply talk about their possible consequences without assigning them the moral attributes of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ that too often plague our public policy discussions and contribute to the lack of civility in them.

Another problem is that people tend to talk almost exclusively about a policy’s desirable consequences. But the reality is that we can never know exactly what the consequences of implementing any policy will be, because the world is too interconnected and complex, and the future too uncertain, for any one mind to comprehend what the consequences of an implementation will actually be. There is, however, still a value in discussing more and less likely consequences. I think that it is very important to try to discuss and understand at least some of a policy’s undesirable or unintended consequences—because in some cases, the harm of failing short of a desired consequence is greater than if we never attempted to do anything at all. One could argue, for example, that the policy aims of the Soviet Union—equality and brotherhood—were noble and admirable, but that the failure to achieve them resulted in an oppressive, ruthless, and inhumane political regime.

It is also important to understand that inaction has consequences as well. It is true that a focus upon possible undesirable consequences may lead to inaction. In some cases, inaction may be good. Not creating the Soviet Union at all, for example, would have been the best policy. In other cases, the costs and consequences associated with inaction may lead to ruin, and even to the destruction of our planet and life as we know it, as proponents of the theory of human caused global warming claim. The problem, of course, is how to tell which is which.

Finally, I think that the main blind spot in our thinking about the possible consequences of our policies is that we too often focus on quick fixes and short-term solutions and ignore their possible long-term effects. Such myopic vision is the bane of our times and election driven democratic political systems. Consider the recent example of how America went to war to bring freedom and liberty to Iraqi people and preempt attacks on our soil. These were clearly admirable goals. But one of the consequences of our policy, after nearly ten years of fighting, is that our financial prosperity and security is gone, along with the financial security that our children, and our grandchildren might have had—and future Americans will have to pay off an inherited debt with huge interest for generations to come. It is thus always important to talk about the possible consequences of our policies—and especially the possible undesirable consequences of our policies and their implementations—and to ask ourselves, over and again, what might happen if our policies and the actions that we take to implement them do not go entirely according to the best-laid plans.