Tuesday, 22 November 2011
Not what was intended
An invisible hand, the ratio of girls to boys in India and China, a plague of rabbits in Australia and a wildlife sanctuary in Korea. What do they have in common? It sounds like a quiz question, doesn’t it, but no, it’s an example of the law of unintended consequences.
Most students of economics will have been introduced to the concept through the work of Adam Smith. He maintained that an individual is led by an “invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from regard to their own self interest.” The unintended consequence of a an act of self interest - the public good.
The higher ratio of boys to girls in countries like India and China is put down to the unintended consequence of the ultrasound. In both societies, boys are valued, girls are not. So the ultrasound enables women to decide on an early abortion of the unwanted girl foetus.
Rabbits were introduced to Australia for food. In no time at all Australia was over run with the rodents leading to the destruction of valuable arable crops. Less food, not more. The unintended opposite of what was intended.
More positively the setting up of a buffer zone between North and South Korea has lead to an unintended wildlife sanctuary developing in this zone.
That actions have unintended consequences, is a lesson now understood by economists and other social scientists but for some strange reason doesn’t seem to have penetrated the minds of politicians.
Two examples of this. The first is that of the economy.
By cutting down hard and quickly on public expenditure to eliminate the country’s debts it has unintentionally made it more difficult for the government to meet their own debt reduction targets.
Cutting down on public expenditure has increased unemployment and consequently increasing the benefit bill. Causing the debt reduction target to slip further into the future.
Another example, modernising the monarchy.
In an attempt by David Cameron to prove his radical credentials he came up with a cunning little plan that would give him brownie points without the expenditure of much political capital.
Off he went to the Commonwealth conference with a plan to change the rules for deciding who gets the Crown.
No, its not going to be raffled all that’s being proposed is a change to the rules of succession. From now on, the first born of the Monarch, irrespective of whether a girl or boy will succeed to the throne. Oh, how different history would have been if the male child of the Monarch had not been allowed to elbow aside his older sister.
Not only did Mr Cameron get a deal on equality between the sexes but also got agreement that future monarchs will be allowed to marry Catholics. Removing at a stroke the anti-Catholic bias at the heart of the monarchy.
All good stuff. But has Mr Cameron thought of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Trying to modernise the British Monarchy a laudable objective, but the rub is that it involves reversing 300 years of law making.
Changing and amending three hundred years of law is the task Mr Cameron now has to get through Parliament. Changes will need to be made to the Coronation Oath 1688, the Bill of Rights 1689, Royal Marriages Act 1772, amongst many others.
But perhaps the one that will raise the most interest, will be the need to change the Act of Union 1707 with Scotland. The religious changes, being proposed, go the heart of this act.
To revisit this Act must be music to the ears of Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland. Why? Well, it will become very clear that the Act of Union is no ordinary Act of Parliament. It is a treaty between two separate sovereign polities. So why should an ardent unionist like Mr Cameron choose to reopen discussions on this treaty now?
It is unclear that at the very time that independence is so high the political agenda in Scotland what is to be gained by opening up this particular hornets nest.It seems a strange piece of timing. Baffling indeed.
Surely, it raises the stakes and plays into the hands of those that want independence. One can only conclude that in rushing into change three hundred years of British history, the Prime Minister just did not think things through.
The unintended consequence of modernising the Monarchy may take us back to the time when there was but one Monarch of two very separate Kingdoms inhabiting these island.