The Phaserl


The Inevitability Of Unintended Consequences

by Adam Taggart, Peak Prosperity:

Anyone involved with managing projects, people or systems knows that the only thing that can be planned with absolute certainty is that things will never go 100% according to plan.

This is true even in exceedingly simple situations, which we’ve written about at length here at Peak Prosperity (the uncontrollable nature of the straightforward Beer Game detailed in this post on the Bullwhip Effect outlines this well). And it’s one of the truisms that gives us the most confidence that the world’s central planners will eventually lose control of the global systems they are trying to manage via increasingly heavy-handed intervention.

History is full of examples where governments’ best-laid plans failed in spectacular fashion, exacerbating the very problems they were intending to solve. Here are a few of our favorites:

Hoy No Circula
In the late 1980s, the air pollution in Mexico City had reached concerning levels. City planners decided that reducing the number of cars on the roads would have a material impact on improving air quality via reduced emissions, so they launched the Hoy No Circula (“today [your car] does not drive”) program.

Hoy No Circula mandated that only certain cars could drive on certain days of the week. The rules were based on the last digit of a car’s license plate. If your license plate ended in a 5 or 6, you couldn’t drive your car on Mondays. If it ended in 7 or 8, Tuesdays were out. And so on.

The expectation was that people would commute via public transit more and, on any given day, there would be 20% fewer cars on the road. 20% fewer cars meant 20% fewer emissions, leading to improved air quality.

But… that’s not quite how things worked out.

People, being people, didn’t want to change their behavior. Having to find alternate transportation plans every few days proved a frustrating inconvenience. So how did the public respond? By buying a second car, with a license plate ending in a different digit than their primary vehicle.

This was bad for several reasons. Not only did it prevent the number of cars driving on the roads each day by dropping by the expected amount, but these secondary cars were predominantly cheaper, older “beater” cars — which were much more pollutive automobiles.

Even those who chose to commute instead predominately took taxis instead of public transit (Mexico City had, and continues to have, insufficient options for public transport). Most of the taxis in use when Hoy No Circula was first implemented were Volkswagen Beetles, one of the worst-emitting vehicles in circulation at the time.

So air quality in Mexico City actually worsened after the implementation of Hoy No Circula. And traffic congestion, which was already bad, got worse, as well.

The Cobra Effect
Such misguided policy-making isn’t anything new. In our recent book Prosper!: How to Prepare for the Future and Create a World Worth Inheriting we share a fine example dating from the Crown rule in India era:

During British colonial rule of India, the government became concerned about the large number of cobras in Delhi. So it issued a bounty on the poisonous snakes, paying a fixed sum for each dead cobra brought in by the public. It didn’t take long for things to start going sideways on this plan. In order to receive more payments, enterprising residents began breeding cobras.

Clearly this was not what the British rulers intended. Once they discovered how their program was being abused, they terminated the bounty scheme. And what happened next? Yep, with no incentive left, the breeders set their now-worthless snakes free. And the cobra problem in Delhi skyrocketed to much greater heights than before the bounty program began. The “solution” had the exact opposite effect as intended.

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