Violating the Law

Politicians violate the law all too frequently. The roster of federal and state legislators and executives who have been exposed as law-breakers is long and shameful. Moreover, the laws they transgress range from local statutes right up to the Constitution. But I venture that the law that is flouted by the greatest number of politicians is actually the Law of Unintended Consequences. The examples are legion and I will point out some of the most famous. However, the main point of this article is to highlight three egregious instances that have received too little attention heretofore.

Let us set the tone by quickly recalling some of the most famous violations of the law of unintended consequences by short-sighted politicians:

  • Minimum Wage Laws. Implemented with the purported purpose of raising the wages of the lowest earning Americans, it has been well documented that a major side effect—which sometimes swamps the intended effect—is increased unemployment among the poor.
  • Gun Control Laws. Enacted to supposedly enhance the safety of our citizens, statistics stubbornly reveal that the localities that pass gun control laws encounter higher rates of crime (including those in which guns are used) than the rates in communities in which concealed weapons statutes are in force.
  • Ethanol Subsidies. Intended to provide relief from our country’s crippling dependence on foreign oil, programs to divert corn to the production of ethanol have had the unintended effect of driving up food prices—both domestically and internationally.
  • The Community Reinvestment Act. Rigging the rules to promote home ownership among the country’s poor, the Act—abetted by those who enforced it vigorously—led directly to the housing bubble and the consequent crash that clobbered the US economy.
  • Aid to Dependent Children. When the government paid women to have babies, discard fathers and not work, then—surprise, surprise—the result was not the intended effect of alleviating poverty; no, the outcome was poor women having many babies, with multiple transitory partners and a culture of helplessness and dependency that destroyed the family structure of all who participated in this pernicious trap.
  • Employer-Based Health Insurance. In order to circumvent FDR’s rigid wage controls, employers conceived the idea of helping to pay for their employees’ health insurance as a recruitment tool. ‘Fine,’ said the IRS. Sixty five years later we have a third party payer system that is helping to bankrupt the country by destroying any user incentive to purchase health care responsibly.
  • Intelligence, or the lack thereof. Due to a misguided sense of moral outrage at the details of covert intelligence operations, the Congress eviscerated the intelligence services of our country over a 30-year period. But rather than elevating the moral fiber of the nation, the result was: Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, 9/11, the fall of the Shah, a failure to foresee the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, erroneous assessments of WMD in Saddam’s Iraq and certainly other unknown intelligence failures that have compromised American security. Moreover, the curtailment of our use of humint in covert operations has not garnered us any increased respect around the world—from either allies or enemies.

Now let us turn our attention to three instances of the formidable law of unintended consequences that have been accorded less recognition. The first originates in a brilliant article by Evelyn Gordon in the January 2010 issue of Commentary Magazine (The Deadly Price of Pursuing Peace, pp. 17-23). Ms. Gordon recalls that one of the main promises of the Oslo peace process was that it would improve Israel’s international standing. She then points out that, despite 16 years of Oslo process, Israel’s standing in the world is at a shockingly low ebb: divestment from and boycott of its products and institutions are called for daily; it is routinely accused of being an ‘apartheid state’; it is characterized by the people of Europe as the single ‘greatest threat to world peace’; its officials are indicted in foreign courts; it is castigated for any and all acts of self-defense (see, e.g., the Goldstone Report); its right to exist is seriously questioned; and indeed its violent death is promised by Iran with nary a peep of condemnation from any other country. Israel’s stated willingness to ‘make concessions for peace,’ its repeatedly announced intention to pursue the peace process with gangsters like Arafat and Abbas, and its unilateral withdrawals all have resulted not in improved standing, but in near pariah status.

Ms. Gordon explains cogently why this is so. First, by acquiescing in the concept that any peace agreement should entail Israeli surrender of part or all of Judea and Samaria (the so-called West Bank), Israel has undermined its own legitimate claim to that territory. Second, by withdrawing from areas in which it previously controlled the Arab population, the result has been more dead Palestinians. This is simply because Israel can no longer arrest, and thereby forestall Arab perpetrators from carrying out their atrocities before they occur; instead it more often must resort to killing the perpetrators of terror during and after their despicable acts. Next, it is clear that Israeli concessions, designed to further the peace process, do not placate Islamic radicals. To the contrary, it impresses upon Israel’s enemies that she is weak and susceptible to defeat by ratcheting up demands. As Gordon says, ‘among anti-Israel radicals, Israel’s increasingly frantic pursuit of peace has aroused not admiration but rather the instincts of a predator scenting blood…[It] convince[s] the radicals (and Palestinians as well) that Israel could be pressured into abandoning any red line if the heat was turned high enough.’ Finally, by raising the hope of a settlement among interested ‘third parties,’ Israel only makes them angrier at her when they see their hopes unfulfilled. Israel would be better served by cooling its ardor for an unachievable peace and encouraging third parties to direct their attention elsewhere.

Ms. Gordon makes a powerful case that had Israel continued its pre-Oslo policy of treating the PLO as a terrorist organization—ergo, an unsuitable peace partner—and refusing to deal with it, Israel would be far better off than it is today. Its insane pursuit of a deeply flawed and unrealizable peace process has led to the unintended consequence of its drastically diminished world standing.

The second example, in which unintended consequences have had a devastating effect, but which has received too little attention, lies in the federalization of US education. Indeed, the education of American youth has truly been federalized, from pre-school to graduate school. I can cite the pervasive role of the feds in student loan programs, the federal regulations that govern the physical environment of our schools and the earmarks that support some of the most arcane school projects. But the coup de grace is No Child Left Behind, which has placed the control of the elementary school curriculum largely under federal direction. The unintended effect of the latter is that the overwhelming majority of the nation’s schools tailor their curriculum to meet the perceived requirements of NCLB. The havoc this has wreaked on the school curriculum has come as a nasty surprise to teachers. In addition, the control that parents can exert on local school boards has been severely curtailed. Finally, student performance has not improved.

Higher education is not immune. We have reached the point that for many institutions of higher education, the amount of revenue that they derive from either of their two traditional sources—tuition and either state funds (public institutions) or endowments (private institutions)—is eclipsed by the funds secured from the feds through government grants and research contracts. Many examples of unintended ill side effects of this development have been recorded—e.g., the severe strictures on research imposed by federal export control regulations. But here is one that I am familiar with from my own university that I have never seen discussed. The selection of campus capital projects and facilities maintenance programs is determined to a surprising extent by the university’s perception of their likelihood of attracting federal matching monies. Well, it is primarily only sexy new buildings and research labs that can do so. Therefore, a hugely disproportionate share of these projects is steered toward the realm of new buildings, hi-tech labs and ultra-modern recreational facilities. The basic infrastructure is left to decay. It has been estimated that the deferred maintenance costs at my institution are nearing one billion dollars. While the safety indicators and educational environment in our classrooms and office buildings atrophy, we leverage funds from the feds to build fancy new buildings whose need is questionable. So, as with the country’s crumbling bridges, roads and tunnels, the university’s infrastructure decays while we chase federal dollars for glitzy buildings, climate change projects, diversity programs and other wasteful outlays in order to satisfy Uncle Sam’s dubious priorities. (The federalization of higher education is discussed in greater depth in another posting in this blog – see Obama Needn’t Federalize Higher Education; It’s Already Federalized)


My final example is the election of Barack Obama and an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress in 2008. It is difficult for me to speak for the people who perpetrated this naïve and reckless act, but I think it is fair to say that they thought they were installing a President and a government that would: improve America’s reputation abroad; bring intelligence, transparency and fairness to the governance of the country; be a unifying force for America; and help to address some of the country’s ongoing fiscal problems in a bipartisan way. What they got instead was a radical left regime, dominated by doctrinaire ideologues, determined to march the country toward Euro-socialism in a partisan, economically-irresponsible and arrogant way.

The unintended consequence of course is that instead of unifying the country under a mildly liberal form of government, the Obama-Pelosi-Reid (OPR) team has produced a badly polarized populace that has turned ferociously on the President and his allies in Congress. The American people have received the exact opposite of what they opted for: our international reputation has changed, but not for the better—instead of being seen as a bully, we are perceived as weak and vacillating, lacking in leadership; the government we have is willfully ignorant, opaque and beholden to hard left special interests; the country is splintered, not unified; and in almost every way, the OPR team has exacerbated America’s fiscal problems. Thus the people can be as ignorant as the politicians. By installing the OPR team, we have totally ignored the law of unintended consequences.