No one said it better than the Scotsman Robert Burns (addressing a wee mouse after its home is destroyed):
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes of mice and men
Go oft awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain.
“Awry” extends to the equally astonishing fact that outcomes not only disappoint expectations but all too often directly contradict the opening gambit. The awareness of unintended consequences provides not only a prudent rule of thumb, a necessary check on human presumption, but a philosophic framework by which to assess the full impacts of policies, inventions, developments, and intentional. This paradigm addresses for me higher truths about the nature of reality and the impossibility of anticipating, let alone controlling the future. Dream on, utopians, delusional icons of ambition, and Armageddon zealots. While intensive, detailed, wise planning warrants full respect, spoken by an ex-resource grant writer, obliviousness to potential, real-world prospects is the ultimate in both naivete and misjudgment, even rank stupidity. Identities to come.
Failing to anticipate downsides produces the worst, and most visible human calamities, such as dam, bridge or building collapses. Or the collapse of the worst (ongoing) hot-air political campaigns. Governments everywhere are so distrusted because too many “popular” policies instigate disparate, inconsistent and unwanted results. So many imprudent means, whether from ignorance or willfulness, are used to justify both good and suspect ends, adding numberless ironies when reality strikes. This is no mere abstraction. How many of our hardest, most critical life choices turn out close to our fervent hopes and dreams? School choices? Marriages? Careers? Choices where to live? Eating and health choices? Political favorites?
Lurching into politics
So the latest right-wing outrages are boomeranging with stunning repercussions—and no end in sight as crazies invade the House. Except that zealots miss the obvious. Destructively out of touch Republicans, pandering to self-righteous anti-abortion crusaders, packed the Supreme Court with extremists hired to dismantle safe, modern procreative options. That erupted into riling up outraged millions of atypical midterm voters who just this month devastated historic patterns—and fiercely enough to jeopardize the national standing of the Republican Party. Extremist “moral purity” no longer has political legs. As reckless, insular demagoguery merges with rights-stealing belligerence, the right invites its own implosion. Good show! Are not grievous unintended consequences inevitable when a desperate, badly-run minority demands total power only to hoist itself on its own petard? In even our marginal democracy, screaming election grievances and inciting doomed insurrections rush over cliffs. Trump is the ultimate American example of unintended consequences, reflecting a primitive, impulsive mind.
Driving this scourge of dimwittery, delusional Trumpers nominated unqualified, inexperienced, election-denying, in-your-face duds—and each major wacko got whacked, even routed across Pennsylvania and Michigan. What phony GOP pitch did not boomerang—made-up crime waves, immigrant hordes who exist only to dilute white power, and solely blaming worldwide inflation on Biden and Democrats (equally caused by global events plus dire Trumpian blunders on the pandemic, bad tariffs, and trashing trade agreements)? Of course, unintended consequences plague Democrats, too: upping D.C. spending in the face of supply chain shortages and wage leverage invited higher prices. Hoping to buy votes by spreading the wealth, Dems handed the ruthless, agenda-deficient right easy cudgels which naturally they used badly.
Even before came Putin’s folly in Ukraine, the greatest, most brutal self-destructive boomerang so far this century, already delivering monumental opposite consequences. What if Putin’s terror, aside from murdering non-combatants, ends up: 1) destroying the Russian Army, both in soldiers and prestige; 2) maximizing world support to bolster the surprises of Ukrainian defenses and NATO unity; and 3) jeopardizing Putin’s otherwise impregnable “life-time” dictatorship. Resigning, instead of suicidal blundering, would have better shielded this evil-doer’s humongous personal treasure, considering how often Russkie rejects terminate in jail, poisoning, or difficulty with long-term breathing. An insular dictator and his tyranny are soon parted by his own unbelievably wrong judgments.
A virtual law of man and nature
Thus has the notion of unintended consequences served as my favorite way to unravel, even expose a remarkable range of human outcomes across history. We’re not talking just big happenings like the Protestant Reformation, hardly begun as a hostile, oppositional religious system—and triggering more irreligious European misery than slews of territorial aggression. Nor that Jesus could not have imagined (nor wanted to imagine) the ultimate backward finale of his humanistic, transcendent teachings—a Roman Catholic church so calcified, immoral and insensitive it could not have done worse in sustaining its own, seemingly endless, sexual child predation scandals.
The range of relevance seems unlimited, way past the obvious unintended consequences in politics, religion and economics (such as the claimed freedom-serving glories of imperial, “free market” capitalism). Look at the history of science where scores of breakthroughs occurred inadvertently when research failed to find some explicit target but stumbled on infinitely richer insights and discoveries. The brilliant BBC T.V. series, Connections, dramatized the entire concept, per Wikipedia: “the entire gestalt of the modern world is the result of a web of interconnected events, each one consisting of a person or group acting for reasons of their own motivations (e.g., profit, curiosity, religion) with no concept of the final, modern result to which the actions of either them or their contemporaries would lead.”
Famously, the accidental discovery of antibiotics, the transference of atomic weaponry to global power plants, stem cell research, indeed the entire genomic industry, even the distortion of Darwin’s (race-free) evolutionary theory into racist Social Darwinism, are all examples of outcomes not predictable, often opposite to earth-shaking source paradigms. The commercialization and political impact of the Internet, let alone email and networking, were never envisioned by the secretive, military originators. High and low tech minerals were around long before breakthrough applications were found. Who knew that common silica would change the world we know, or that Edison would perfect simple carbonized filaments in early light bulbs? Or that better astronomical measurements would explode our notions about the expanding universe and its unimaginable magnitude?
Core to the nature of change
Ultimately, the mapping of extraordinary, unplanned connections exposes the vast complexity of reality, not always for the better per Wikipedia “when this rate of innovation, or more importantly ‘change’ itself, becomes too much for the average person to handle, and what this means for individual power, liberty, and privacy.” What vast changes accrue to our entire outlook when reality answers to Werner Heisenberg’s (and others’) quip that “Not only is the universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think”?
What if unintended consequences lead not only to breakthrough positives but destructive means and machinery by which humanity can do itself in? What if our ingenuous species improves ways (already in progress) to consume ourselves out of house and home, causing our own over-capacity extinction before a rogue flying rock (or death of our sun) wreaks limitless damage on air breathing earthlings. Species self-destruction must be the ultimate unintended consequences after miraculously reproducible life sprang from inanimate origins. To go from ordinary materials to high consciousness, then back again to earth (literally) is the most curious, unintended circular trip imaginable.
A quick return to politics. What if Trump, so disgraced he thinks running for office gets him off the hook for prosecution (a typical cosmic Donald boomerang), ends up making himself more liable jail bait? What if his mindless confessional blathering exposes yet unknown crimes? He would have been better off and richer had he never presumed to the presidency. The ultimate, narcissistic fool, his money, and his liberty, are soon parted. That’s what legal, moral and democratic systems are designed to do—evaluate performance. Working democracies are all about elections, thus assessing merits and demerits, and neither stable geniuses nor unstable doofuses have a chance to predict, let alone control the future. We are by this model a flawed species, often too clever by half.