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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
Emma B BS: Is Monarchy Obsolete in the UK? (192* d) RE: BS: Is Monarchy Obsolete in the UK? 26 Jul 10


"the inevitable intervention of The Law of Unforeseen Consequences"

reminded me of this from the late lamented Oliver Postgate

The Law of Unintended Consequences

"Right then." said God. "What have you been up to now?"

"Me?" asked the Devil, innocent as ever.

"Yes you. You know quite well it is I who make laws !"

"Yes indeedy! and very pretty they are too. Your Laws are immutable, eternal, absolute, self-evident, unchanging throughout eternity and . . ."

"All right, I know all that! I just want to know what this "Law of Unintended Consequences" is and why you thought it up?"

"Who? Me? Never!" replied the Devil. "If you didn't think it up yourself it probably isn't really a Law at all. It could be an "observable phenomenon."

"If it is observable, I will have observed it" said God firmly.

"Of course, of course! But they're not all that easy to spot."

"Why not?"

"Because not being intended, unintended consequences are not on the list of what was expected to happen, so if one does happen, nobody has to notice it or connect it with whatever was intended. Or, if they do notice it they just write it off as part of the 'law of unintended consequences', and of course as your laws are immutable, eternal and that, they know they can't do anything about it even if they wanted to, which half the time they don't."

"Now aren't you being the least bit uncharitable? Give me a "for instance". Give me a nice simple example of one of these unintended consequences."

"All right. Try this: The French government has recently legislated to increase the compulsory maternity benefits and paid time-off for lady workers in industry."

"Yes, so I heard, so I heard, very thoughtful and kind."

"So what is the consequence?" asked the Devil.

"They can look after their babies of course. That's what it's for."

"Maybe. But what actually happens is that they can't get jobs. Nobody can afford to employ them any more."

"Yes, but the government didn't mean that to happen."

"I daresay, but they should have bloody seen that it was going to!"

"Are you perhaps being the least bit intolerant?" said God, "I mean anybody can make a mistake."

The Devil sighed: "You asked for a simple "for instance" and that's what I gave you. Obviously sometimes there can be unintended consequences that could not possibly have been foreseen. But that wasn't one of them. That particular one could and should have been foreseen. Somebody just couldn't be bothered to think it through, or maybe worse than that, they could have been showing off - just wanting to be seen to be doing something apparently good to boost their political image, and if that was their intended consequence they achieved it, and to hell anything else that happens."

"OK, cool it!" said God. "So some people are careless and some are single-mindedly self-interested. But that's not the end of the world is it?"

"I don't know about that. You were on the aircraft carrier in Iraq, when President Bush stood under the banner: MISSION ACCOMPLISHED."

"Oh I suppose so." muttered God.

"So he had achieved his intended consequence."

"Yes, sort of."

"So later, when it all went wrong, he could call what did happen an "unintended consequence", as if it was something out of his control, like a change in the weather. Bush's underlying assumption being that people are only responsible for the things that they say they intended to happen as a result of what they did, and that if something different happens it's just too bad. So he can say: "Although there do seem to be some problems there now, we did what seemed to be the right thing at the time, so what is happening now is not actually our fault."

"So OK. That's probably what Bush does think. If he didn't intend the chaos to happen, and nobody told him it was likely to, it was just a mistake."

The Devil shook his head in disbelief. He said: "Where were you? You know that thousands of very important and well-informed people were saying - in fact shouting in his ear - that to go in and lay waste to Iraq was likely to have just the sort of consequences that it has had. So although President Bush can take the view that the bloody carnage going on there is an "unintended" consequence, it was definitely not an "unforeseen" consequence. It was amply, lavishly, foreseen, and that makes it different in kind from a mistake or a piece of mental inattention, different because the carnage is clearly the result of an actual refusal to see the situation that was most likely going to result from his action. And his reason for refusing to see or care about it was that all he wanted was to be seen to be doing something grand and grandiose after nine-eleven. That was his intended consequence."

"My! You have got it in for him haven't you?" said God. "But Bush's motives are not part of your Law of Unintended Consequences."

"Dammit! It's not my law!" snapped the Devil, "It's an observable phenomenon, part of your creation, a built-in personality-fault of your loved ones, which, in my diabolical view, shows this world of yours to be in a seriously dangerous condition."

"Now wait a minute!" said God, looking a shade wrathful. "Thou art a harbinger of Doom, OK. But it's not down to us. You know perfectly well that long ago we "endowed the people with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness". You were in on that, and it's thanks to you that the pursuit of happiness by one lot can cause the misery of another lot."

"Oh no it isn't! You can't pin that one on me!" countered the Devil firmly. "That was inherent in the proposition."

"Well, anyway, whatever the reason, that was why Abe Lincoln put in the bit about Government, er, you know . . ."

The Devil sighed. "Yes, I know: "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, - that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it."

"There you are, you see! The people out there are in charge of themselves. They have the life and the liberty to pursue their happiness."

"Yes and if they don't get it, they can boot out the government and get another one that will give it to them . . .what were the words? " . . . laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.'"

"Yes indeed!" said God. "Rather good don't you think?"

"So the purpose of a government is to provide its people with the maximum of happiness and safety along with the liberty to enjoy it?"

"Got it in one! The good things of this green and lovely world are there for all living things to enjoy."

"And if the government ceases to provide plentiful green and lovely goodies, what happens?"

"The people exercise their inalienable right and boot them out, vote in another government which will. But governments take their situation seriously. Indeed their political success is maintained by the ever-increasing 'standard of living' that they can garner for their people, who are, as you say, depending on them to provide it."

"Right! I'm beginning to understand it now." said the Devil. "And what happens when the world runs short of goodies?"

"Well, I don't know. The governments would just have to tell their people they can't provide them with so many."

"And get booted out by their electorate and lose their power? Not likely!" laughed the Devil.

"Well, what would they do?"

"What they always do - pinch somebody else's goodies. Declare a righteous war to liberate a few oil-wells in foreign places. Pursue honourable trade and corner the market. You gave them greed. They just worked out how to use it."

"All right, Mister Know-it-all." said God crossly. "Of course people have to pursue their own interests. If they didn't they would have become extinct long ago, along with the Dodo, which couldn't be bothered to look after itself. The thing is that in the long run it all works out for the best."

"Who are you kidding?" laughed the Devil. "In the long run it all works out for the worst."

"Now wait a minute!" said God, now seriously wrathful. "That's a serious allegation. You just justify it. Go on! Give me a "for instance"!"

"Better than that," said the Devil. "I can give you a "Just supposing . . ."

"Please yourself. Only get on with it."

"All right. Listen. Just suppose that some of the governments of your world have been beavering away for, say, half a century, single-mindedly amassing more and more goodies to keep their people rich and happy, giving them, as you say is their function, 'an ever-increasing standard of living', and suppose that to do this they have had to vastly increase industrial production, destroying forests and polluting rivers and seas, burning fossil fuel and farting their exhaust gases into the atmosphere."

"Now you're just being vulgar!"

"Yes." continued the Devil, "And supposing the vulgarly enriched atmosphere of your green and lovely planet has been allowed to become so polluted that for decades it has been behaving like a sort of greenhouse, gradually warming the world up like one of those off-peak heat-storage units until the white ice has begun to melt away and it very gradually begins to cook in the heat of the sun. So that within a century or so your green and lovely world will be a desert. Tell me, dear Lord: what do you think your free people would do?"

God thought.

"Well I suppose the government would just have to explain the situation to its people, and tell them they can't have any more goodies."

"And get themselves booted out? Show themselves to have failed? There's always another political party waiting in the wings to take over. A government is nothing if it can't provide the goodies."

"But what if it were true?"

"Truth doesn't enter into it." said the Devil. "One of the liberties you gave to people was the freedom to believe as true whatever it pleases them to believe is true or if necessary, they might seem to believe it, but only in an academic sort of way; so that global warming could be a subject on which to have an opinion, but not something that would actually happen to them. The government is their courier on the trip of life. The people know it will look after them."

"So what does a government do?"

"It lies." said the Devil.

"Now wait a minute! That's not respectful." said God severely.

"Sorry," said the Devil. "I beg their pardon. The government goes in for 'best-case thinking'".

"And what the hell is that?"

"Just one of the virtues. It's called "a commitment to continuity and optimism". It was once the rallying-cry of the lemmings, if you remember."

"Shut up or make sense!" snapped the Deity. "Say what happens!"

"Right. The government prepares an evaluation of the situation, a balance between the various imperatives of keeping the confidence of the electorate, safeguarding economic prosperity, and saving the planet."

"How?"

"It puts together what is called a 'narrative'. In this, by carefully selecting optimistic scientific conjectures, the situation is presented as being amenable to specific long-term adjustments. Then, in the light of these, proposals are made for small convenient actions to be taken and campaigns encouraged which will enable people to change their light-bulbs and feel that they are facing up to reality without seriously reducing their 'standard of living'".

"And that would be the intended consequence?" asked God.

"But of course!" replied the Devil. "It would deal with all the problems. It would keep the government safely in power, keep the electorate feeling happy and virtuous and it just might, eventually, reduce global warming".

"But if it didn't, and global warming were to get out of hand, their children and grandchildren would die!" cried God.

"Right!" said the Devil. "But that would be an unintended consequence."

Oliver Postgate    August 2007

Sorry - totally off topic but - what the hell! :)


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