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The Law of Unintended Consequences

I’ve been on a bit of a YA reading binge recently. Okay, that really means I read like four YAs in a row, which to some of you may not be a lot, but is to me, especially since I’m in the midst of a big brain-draining revision. (I love revision, though it’s grueling, thank you very much!)

Anyway, in some of them, the setup of the world (I read mostly paranormal and/or SF YAs) makes me snort out loud. It’s primarily because the authors say their world has this set of rules or that, but none of them adequately address the unintended consequences of each set of rules.

Since I’m feeling lazy, I’ll copy-paste Wikipedia’s definition:

In the social sciences, unintended consequences are outcomes that are not (or not limited to) the results originally intended by a particular action. The unintended results, not recognized by the actor, may be positive or negative. The concept has long existed, but was named and popularised in the 20th century by the American sociologist, Robert K. Merton. The law of unintended consequences is an adage or idiom warning that an intervention in a complex system invariably creates unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes.

Unintended consequences can be grouped into roughly three types:

  • a positive unexpected benefit, usually referred to as serendipity or a windfall.
  • a negative unexpected drawback, occurring in addition to the desired effect of the policy – e.g. while irrigation schemes do provide people with water for agriculture, they often increase waterborne disease which can a have a devastating negative health effect, such as schistosomiasis.
  • a perverse effect, that may be contrary to what was originally intended (i.e. when an intended solution to a problem only makes the problem worse). This situation can arise when a policy has a perverse incentive and causes actions contrary to what is desired.

Every new policy and rule almost always changes the characters’ individual motivators and artificially creates winners and losers. For a example, outsourcing manufacturing in the States made a lot of goods very cheap, so consumers won, but many who worked in factories in America lost their jobs. (This is a big oversimplification, but you get the idea.) The new economic dynamics caused a strong downward pressure on blue-collar workers’ wages and standard of living, among various other unintended consequences.

So I find it hard to buy into a scenario when every new rule, etc. does exactly what it was designed to do. It feels like the author just doesn’t understand how economic incentives work or doesn’t want to dig deeper than the surface.

P.S. As for the cartoon…I kinda feel that way about the way our government officials tried to help the small folks on Main Street.

6 comments to “The Law of Unintended Consequences”

  1. Emily
    · July 26th, 2010 at 11:37 pm · Link

    Never mind YA.

    I honestly think that adult UF is worse in this respect.

  2. Emily
    · July 27th, 2010 at 12:43 am · Link

    At this rate, I am going to make this unofficially a year of non-fiction.

    Which would be rather depressing, but at least I might enjoy what I’m reading.

  3. Emily
    · July 27th, 2010 at 1:27 am · Link

    I want to. I am just not feeling the fiction love.

    Very very sad.

  4. Nadia Lee
    · July 26th, 2010 at 11:45 pm · Link

    That’s true. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve been reading fewer UFs than usual.

  5. Nadia Lee
    · July 27th, 2010 at 1:25 am · Link


  6. Nadia Lee
    · July 27th, 2010 at 3:13 pm · Link


    That’s so depressing. Have you tried reading mystery or some other new-to-you genres?


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