Good Intentions Are Not Enough: The Prevalence of Unintended Consequences

By Mississippi Center for Public Policy
May 16, 2018

New policies restricting capitalism are often enacted because they ‘sound like good ideas.’ Unfortunately, these policies frequently have unintended consequences that work against the very goals they were intended to achieve.

The minimum wage is a good case in point. While many people are in favor of the minimum wage law, they support it because they think it helps low income families. The published scientific evidence, however, rejects this view and instead concludes that the minimum wage actually makes the intended beneficiaries worse off. So, for the same reason—the goal of helping those in need—economists are generally opposed to minimum wage legislation. This position can only be reached by examining all of the other indirect changes that happen as a result of a minimum wage, such as less worker training, fewer employee benefits, and most importantly fewer jobs and higher unemployment for low-skilled workers.

Again, it is important to remember that economics is a science, not a political position. We care little about the publicly stated intent or goal of the policy, and rather evaluate policy based on published research that examines real-world evidence. Good intentions are not enough to guarantee good outcomes. A few more examples will help to illustrate this important point.

The employment provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) were passed with the intention of lowering barriers to employment for disabled persons. The legislation prohibits discrimination based on disability status and further requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. Has the ADA lived up to its stated intent? Has it expanded employment among the disabled?

Thomas DeLeire, a public policy professor at the University of Chicago, wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the employment effects of the ADA legislation when he was in graduate school at Stanford University. His research shows that the ADA has actually harmed the employment opportunities for disabled Americans. By increasing the cost of hiring disabled workers and making it harder to fire them, this legislation has resulted in a reduction in employment among disabled individuals. Prior to the ADA, 60 out of every 100 disabled men were able to find jobs. After the ADA went into effect, however, employment fell to less than 50 per 100 disabled men. After adjusting for other factors, DeLeire concludes that 80 percent of this decline was caused by the bad incentives created by the ADA. While the entire purpose of this legislation was to increase the employment opportunities for the disabled, the data simply do not support this view. Instead, the ADA seems to have made it more difficult and costly for employers to hire disabled workers, resulting in reduced job opportunities for disabled people. If the goal is to expand employment opportunities for disabled Americans, the research suggests that the ADA is not the answer.

Environmental policy often has the most devastating examples of unintended consequences. Under the Endangered Species Act, for example, large areas around the nesting grounds of the red-cockaded woodpecker can be declared ‘protected habitats,’ which then imposes stringent restrictions on the surrounding property owners. When the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service put Boiling Springs Lakes, North Carolina on notice that active nests were beginning to form near the town, it unleashed a frenzy of action on the part of the residents, but not of the type you might expect. Foreseeing the potential future restrictions on their property use, landowners swarmed the city hall to apply for lot-clearing permits. After removing the trees, the land would no longer be in danger of being declared an environmentally protected habitat because no future nests could form on the property.

Similar incidents have occurred throughout the range of this bird, and the total habitable nesting area for this species in the United States has fallen dramatically as a result of the poor incentive structure created by the law. The red-cockaded woodpecker has lost a significant portion of its habitat, moving it closer to extinction because of the unintended consequences of the Endangered Species Act.

As these examples illustrate, policy designed with even the best intentions can create unintended consequences that work against the original goal of the policy. The concept of unintended consequences vividly illustrates why having an economic ‘captain’ can often produce more harm for an economy than not having one.

One additional problem with government regulations is that there is no profit and loss-type system to eliminate bad policies throughout time. In the end, some policies just do not live up to their stated goals, or do so but at too high of a cost. West Virginia, for example, imposed a maximum eight hour operating restriction on taxi drivers. The law was intended to reduce driver fatigue and accidents involving taxis. Policy makers, however, overlooked the unintended consequences resulting from changing the incentives faced by cab drivers. With fewer hours to drive in a day, cab drivers started driving at faster speeds and took fewer breaks. Not only did the law result in a significant reduction in the number of cabs operating in the state, which led to more driving while intoxicated incidents, but it exacerbated the very problem it was designed to reduce. Even though there are fewer cabs on the road due to the law, the total number of accidents committed by cab drivers has increased in West Virginia since the regulation has been passed. Despite this information being widely-known, state policy makers in West Virginia do not ‘have the time to get the law off the books’ due to having to deal with too many other, more pressing, current issues. Simply put, government lawmakers just do not have the time to go back and look into the effectiveness of all laws from the past, nor the time to introduce the legislation to repeal them.

This highlights the need for Mississippi to reform its regulatory review process. Quite simply if a regulation adopted in Mississippi cannot prove, with data, that it is accomplishing its stated goal in a cost effective manner within some period of time, say five years, it should be repealed. Regulations, and other policies, should have to fight to stay in place based on scientific evidence regarding the costs and benefits they create.

This is an excerpt from Why Capitalism Works by Russell S. Sobel and J. Brandon Bolen. It was published in Promoting Prosperity in Mississippi.


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