Sunday, February 01, 2009

To Save Ourselves From Many A Blunder

Joseph Kranak writes the Skeptical Philosopher (‘comments on the history of ideas and on contemporary issues’) HERE:

“The perverse incentives and unintended consequences created by the welfare system in place should give us all the more pause, when considering something as extreme as eugenics, which is even more liable to create more perverse incentives and bigger unintended consequences. Government actions can have unintended consequences, which lead to further problems, necessitating further government actions, creating further problems and further responses. Sometimes government action can lead to a chain of action and response like some elaborate legal rube goldberg machine, such as the example that Adam Smith gives in the Wealth of Nations, when England closed down all the Catholic churches, which had been responsible for aiding the poor. Without someone to aid the poor anymore, the government forced parsonages to take care of the poor, leading to perverse incentives which the British government had to respond to, leading to more unintended consequences, until finally the poor were ultimately all but forbidden from traveling freely through England, which created huge disparities in labor availability (and thereby wages) from parsonage to parsonage.

I shall ignore the eugenics part of this post.

The reference to the Adam Smith and the unintentional consequences of ‘well-meaning’ legislation is well made. If the promoters of legislation to solve this or another problem were to consider the potential consequences of their actions for their often worthy intentions, they would think again.

They only have to look at history for almost endless examples to influence that degree of modesty they lack.

One minor issue. It wasn’t the case that “England closed down all the Catholic churches, which had been responsible for aiding the poor”. It was the dissolution (and destruction) of the Monasteries, with their vast inherited wealth from lands left to him by Catholic families that created the problem:

When by the destruction of monasteries the poor had been deprived of the charity of those religious houses, after some other ineffectual attempts for their relief, it was enacted by the 43d of Elizabeth, c. 2, that every parish should be bound to provide for its own poor; and that overseers of the poor should be annually appointed, who, with the churchwardens, should raise, by a parish rate, competent sums for this purpose.” (WN I.x.c.46: pp152-53; Edwin Canaan, ed, 1937: p 135-36)

It can take a long time to correct the unintended consequences of the wrong policies of governments.

The dissolution of the monasteries was ordered from 1564; the growing problem of the poor was still evident in mid-18th century, as Adam Smith noted in Wealth Of Nations (read the whole section referenced above).

This should cure even hardened ‘men of system’ from their well-meaning impulses to ‘improve’ the whole world with their whole-word solutions.

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