The Law of Unintended Consequences


Fat and global warming. What do they have in common? They have or could trigger the law of unintended consequences. What is the law of unintended consequences? It is when people, in the name of good or progress, do things that have negative consequences that no one foresaw.
An example is MTBE. MTBE stands for something like methyl trans… well, it was supposed to be a gasoline additive that would reduce air pollution. And it worked. Except it also seeped into the water supply and caused death, pestilence, disease, and so forth. It was mandated for use against air pollution by that supreme body of scientific research–the United States Congress.

Unintended Consequences

Lawsuits against the oil companies:

Then a congressman from the great state of Texas tried to stop lawsuits against the oil companies for putting MTBE in the gasoline because, as he pointed out, they were required by law to do so. Didn’t get very far because the United States Congress, the same people that mandated the MTBE, now gave the green light to prosecute the people they forced to put the stuff in the gasoline. The law of unintended consequences.

I know the law personally because often I would sit in meetings and someone would make a great presentation about a new product or new project that was going to 1) transform the company and make us all rich or richer or 2) make life easier. The ‘life easier’ projects were usually new computer programs/upgrades that invariably failed.

So I would sit there and my stomach would hurt because I knew, and it knew, this thing wasn’t going to work. And 99% of the time it didn’t and then we had to pick up the pieces. The major exception to this rule–I thought buying Gatorade was about the stupidest decision on the face of the planet. Was wrong on that big time.

But back to the law of unintended consequences and how to know it when you see it. Two examples this morning–one already out there and one in the making. It seems that the city of New York is going to ban or is thinking about banning the use by food companies and restaurants of trans fats. Good idea? Beats me. I have already banned the little bastards from my house so why not New York? On the surface a great idea. Except that the restaurants and food companies are bitching a bit because they are using trans fats because they were told to by–none other than the city of New York. Huh? Seems the city a few years ago wanted to lower the use of saturated fats so they recommended the use of, what else? Trans fats. Those restaurant guys must think they live in an alternative universe.

Saturated fat vs. Trans fat:

No big deal but how much taxpayer time and energy as well as corporate cash has gone down the drain over saturated fat vs. trans fat? The law of unintended consequences.

The next one is a news report this morning that the British government has hired Al Gore as an advisor on global warning. I don’t really know why this scares me but it will be interesting to see what happens.

Just remember the definition of the law of unintended consequences so you know it when you see it. It is when people, in the name of good or progress, do things that have negative consequences that no one foresaw.

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