Myopia and Unintended Consequences

Government programs and policies often have hidden, unanticipated, or unintended consequences beyond what the interventions were originally intended for.

This phenomenon is called the law of unintended consequences, popularized by American sociologist Robert K. Merton in his 1936 paper on “Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action.”

The unintended consequences are usually of three types: (a) an unexpected benefit, usually in the form of luck, serendipity, or windfall; (b) an unexpected drawback, detriment, or disadvantage, as when a road project brings in prostitution; and (c) a perverse result or “backfire effect” contrary to what the program or policy originally intended, as when an upgraded health-facility standard reduces rather that increases households’ access to care.

Now, the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) has published a book exactly on this topic. “Unintended Consequences: The Folly of Uncritical Thinking,” is authored by Vicente Paqueo and other PIDS staff.

The imposition of the total log ban (EO 23), intended to protect Philippine forests, proved to be more harmful than beneficial as it increased  rather than decreased  illegal logging as well as corruption in forestry.

Temporary employment contracts, often frowned upon by labor leaders for slowing employment growth, turned out to be useful in dealing efficiently with seasonal, fixed-term, project-based demands as well as unexpected business fluctuations. Totally prohibiting temporary employment contracts, therefore, would be counter-productive.
The introduction and expansion of the conditional cash transfer program (4Ps) were met with much scepticism about its possible adverse effects on increasing laziness, dependence, gambling, and other vices, but empirical impact evaluation has shown these to be false. Thus, if policymakers had only heeded the conventional myopic wisdom of skeptics, the 4Ps program would never have taken off, with consequently fewer social benefits being generated.

These and other examples show that indeed, a combination of myopia (short-sightedness) and hubris (excess pride in human rationality and underestimation of the complexity of the world) often undergird government policies. The authors note that policymakers should be more grounded with data and information, and that ongoing programs and policies should be subjected to rigorous impact evaluation to assess their continuing validity.

About the Author
Mr. Oscar F. Picazo is a retired specialist in health systems, health economics, and social policy. He has worked in 24 countries for the World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and as an independent consultant. He returned to the Philippines in 2009 and became a senior research consultant for the Philippine Institute of Development Studies.
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