Good intentions often go awry. Kind acts backfire. What starts well often ends badly.
Welcome to the world of unintended consequences. Here are three recent examples.
- Habitat for Humanities is a remarkable success story, a coming together of individuals (no government, thank you) to contribute money and build homes with and for the less fortunate among us. Habitat is the ultimate example of hands-on altruism. Retired lawyers wielding a hammer. Retired physicians wiring a new home.
And the Naples chapter is one of the most successful in the nation, turning out hundreds of low-cost homes for families that participate in their construction. What can possibly be bad about that?
The homes are not maintained. One Naples Daily News letter writer points to “trash, mobs of kids, many rusted old cars and other debris.” What Habitat is really doing, she says, is creating slums. A second letter writer agrees. No more donations from him.
Those of us from corporate life know you need capital to build things and operating money to maintain them. Habitat provides the capital but leaves the maintenance up to the occupants. And many of the Habitat occupants have no money to keep up their property. Basic repairs, trash containment, an occasional coat of paint — none of that happens. So the donors (count me among them) and the hands-on builders from the right side of the tracks churn out houses that subsequently deteriorate.
- According to the Wall Street Journal, the federal government — Republicans and Democrats alike — made a trillion-dollar-plus investment over the past 15 years to improve the nation’s workforce. A big part of that was for higher education, loans for attending community colleges, universities and graduate schools. Total outstanding student debt today stands at $1.2 trillion.
A recent study by the Treasury Department and George Washington University showed that over half of the loan-burdened students dropped out of school before graduating. Of those who did graduate, many found their subsequent earnings barely covered debt repayment.
The sad conclusion, say the experts, is that government largesse in the form of student loans has widened, not narrowed, the gap between the haves and have-nots in this country. Perhaps that will change in the future. But for now it’s an unintended and very unfortunate consequence.
- Then there is gun control. Every mass shooting brings calls for more gun control. Never mind that cities with the most stringent gun laws (Chicago, Detroit) have the highest murder rates. Never mind that home-grown terrorists bent on carrying out Islamic jihad pay no attention to gun laws. A political cohort in our country feels we can shut down violence if we simply make it harder for people to get firearms.
So what happens? Every time there’s a call for stricter gun laws, there’s a huge spike in gun sales. (Floridians are on track to buy more firearms this year than ever before.) The New York Times quotes an analyst as saying President Obama is the best gun salesman the country has ever seen.
Instead of taking guns off the street, the government is inadvertently promoting gun ownership. Calls for more stringent background checks simply send the determined killer underground; data shows there are plenty of illegal guns to be had. You can’t legislate lawfulness.
Let’s not give up on good intentions. But let’s be clear they are often subject to Murphy’s Law: If things can go wrong, they probably will. The path to nirvana is littered with unintended consequences.