Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem.



January 2011

A Lesson in Unintended Consequences

Written by , Posted in Government Meddling

I’m all for the scientific pursuit of knowledge. I have degrees in two very different scientific fields, I value the scientific method, and I firmly believe that knowledge is power (or as I learned from watching G.I Joe cartoons while growing up , “Knowing is half the battle”). I say all this to make clear that this shouldn’t be taken as a knock on science or the particular scientists involved in this story. Rather, I present this news item as an example of the dangers of unintended consequences:

Some scientists studying penguins may be inadvertently harming them with the metal bands they use to keep track of the tuxedo-clad seabirds, a new study says.

The survival rate of King penguins with metal bands on their flippers was 44 percent lower than those without bands and banded birds produced far fewer chicks, according to new research published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The theory is that the metal bands — either aluminum or stainless steel — increase drag on the penguins when they swim, making them work harder, the study’s authors said.

Author Yvon Le Maho of the University of Strasbourg in France, said the banded penguins looked haggard, appearing older than their actual age.

Consequently, studies that use banded penguins — including ones about the effects of global warming on the seabirds — may be inaccurate, mixing up other changes in penguin life with the effects from banding, said Le Maho and colleague Claire Saraux.

Now imagine that the scientists are government and we are the penguins. Such unintended consequences are not at all uncommon from government policy. It’s not usually so bad as drastically increasing mortality rates, but unintended consequences abound whenever government do-gooders get a design in their eyes for how to improve society.

In the case of the penguins, I’m sure this new finding will be incorporated into future studies, with new study techniques being developed and implemented so that future beings aren’t condemned to death. That’s the difference between science and government. Scientists learn (eventually); government’s don’t. We know that government imposed minimum wages hurt the very people they are said to help, but still they remain, and are constantly increased. We know that government meddling in the housing market contributed to the economic collapse, yet the very same policies continue today.

We need a government that is aware of the likelihood and dangers of unintended consequences from sweeping legislation that drastically increases the role of government in society. It’s not that one expects the exact problems to be foreseen in every case (they are, after all, unintended), but a general awareness of the danger government can inflict on society through its meddling would result in far fewer destructive policies ever seeing the light of day. We penguins request just that little bit of additional consideration for our well-being.