Monday, January 17, 2011

Concretising the possible flaws

For reference regarding what flaws in I've done so far in scattered episodes over the last three weeks, this is the work in progress. Be warned: it is messy, and skeletonish in places. As ever with me, mine out of it what you can if you're interested, but don't expect too much value.

Preliminary identification of the law
Most western people these days have heard of this “Law of Unintended Consequences.” That’s a bit of a misnomer, where the proper specification is the Law of Unanticipated Consequences – but more on that later. Simply put, the law is that whenever individuals act (qua human action) with intent to arrive at certain consequences there are always alternative or additional consequences that were not anticipated by the actor. These consequences could be either good or bad for the actor or others: unanticipated does not automatically mean undesirable. They could also be in terms of simple happening versus non-happening or in terms of marked differences in degree.

The Concise Encyclopaedia of Economics notes that the concept has a long history, though it only became popularised in the 20th century following the efforts of Robert Merton. Merton focussed chiefly on social outcomes of action, but the law is broader than that and applies to all consequences of volitional action. For that reason I hold it to be important to ethics theory, which means will redound upon economics for more than just collectivists’ preoccupation with sociopolitical organisation.

Here I can note some of that wrong-headedness. Prior to Christmas and the New Year, I’d already known about the distinction between material consequences and value consequences, but what finally dawned on me more recently was the distinction between what was unintended and what was unanticipated. I am hardly the only one to have failed to note that subtlety, as shown by how the law is popularly known as unintended consequences rather than Merton’s original specification of unanticipated, evidence by common experience and also how the Wikipedia entry jams Merton’s original word in brackets as though the difference were a mere affectation. In truth, there are such things as consequences that were anticipated but were nevertheless unintended. This is where they are known concomitants of consequences that were both anticipated and intended to result from the action. The knowledge of undesirable side-effects of medicines leading to prescriptions of supplementary medications to deal with those side-effects is a major example. It doesn’t have to be negative in terms of value, either, and may also be positive. An example is the prior-identified brightening of a room in some newly-moved-in-to house that also results from repainting it in lighter colours and whose motivation for doing so was to reassign it to a girl rather than another boy as per its previous occupant. The law does not apply to these cases because the consequences were anticipated even though unintended.

But, these distinctions aside, the simple validation of there being at least something to this law is easy enough, and is precisely what Merton did. He brought various observations made by many others throughout history (eg Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”) together, noticed their similarity, and came up with his generalisation. The Wikipedia entry lists additional examples, too. To that I’ll add the machinations against Flavius Aetius, whose murder by Emperor Valentinian III left Rome vulnerable to sacking by the Vandals, as well as being one of the motives for Valentinian’s own assassination (one does wonder to what extent Valentinian had perhaps thought of these prospective events, though).

As well as those high-profile instances, everyone will have had experiences of minor instances in their own lives. Just last weekend I was cutting up the wood beams and planks that my father and I pulled down earlier in the week from an old pergola in my parents’ back yard. I got him to hold one end of a beam or plank secure while the other sat across the top of a broad-lidded and sturdy bin, which was wide enough such that the half sitting on it should not fall off from being unbalanced after I cut the wood with a power-saw. Indeed, no wood got unbalanced of its own accord, just as I anticipated. What I really did not expect was a gust of wind catching one of the now-lighter half-planks strongly enough to push it off and fall on my head as I was putting the power saw safely back on the ground. Fortunately it was flat-on rather than edge on, but that still hurt! Another local example I can add is how the construction of a stone jetty along some coast in South Australia had the unanticipated effect of curtailing the flow of water along that beach frontage, causing the sand to build up on one side and reducing the rate of replenishment of beach sand on the other. It wasn’t fully appreciated that the sand was moving laterally along the whole beachfront, rather than deposited merely by tidal action.

The phenomenon is also to be found in the dramatic arts, instantly recognisable as such because the phenomenon is so commonplace in the real world. The murder of Flavius Aetius was part of the content of the dramatisation of that period in Roman history in the miniseries Atilla, for instance. In movies, the old version of Journey to the Centre of the Earth showed Professor Lindenbrook gently chipping out a small crystal from a cave wall, which had the unanticipated consequence of weakening that wall. The fragile wall had been holding back a body of water or an underground river, so, shortly after the single crystal was removed, the crack left behind sprung a leak which grew and grew until the whole wall collapsed and the explorers were caught in a flood.

Because of familiarity with instances like these, both major and minor, and both personally and in coming to know of others’ accounts, people will almost instantly recognise there being something to this law. But that is not the only reason people accept it so readily, because the commonest sense-of-life I find attached with it is that relating to results both undesired and unanticipated. Some people will take to the law readily because it fits with a Malevolent Universe Premise, which could be implicit or explicit in any given individual’s case. I would argue that Merton’s just complaint about how the issue had often hitherto been treated as being one of express or insinuated theological import stems from that in some fashion. This MUP is still echoed today by the Wikipedia article in its reference to it being a caution against hubris and the culture putting the law on par with Murphy’s Law, and also by my own observation of it being invoked as part of conservative attacks on leftists’ policies and programs where the attacks are usually combined with calls for humility or somesuch (which basis for calls is essentially a continuation of the theological insinuation).

Still, irrespective of the attributions and motives people have for identifying it, direct observation of countless instances that range from the mundane happenings of daily life through to the most broad-ranging events in politics or some other grand arena means that we have enough to state that there is indeed a broad-ranging tendency for things to happen that the actor did not expect to happen. It is a phenomenon that deserves sober attention, which fact is what motivated Merton to write his paper.

Understanding the causes
One of Merton’s aims, besides bringing the issue to attention, was to examine the causes for the phenomenon. He holds that there are four main causes: ignorance, error, immediacy of interest, and adherence to basic values. The Wikipedia entry adds a fifth: the relevance paradox. To my mind, though, I think that only the first two are the actual direct causes and that the other three are causes for those causes. There are a number of causes of both ignorance and error, and those other three should be analysed as part of the analysis of those causes.

The cause in ignorance is that, for whatever reason, the actor did not possess prior to all the information or techniques of interpretation of that information that were relevant to desired outcomes. This could be for entirely innocent reasons, such as simple ignorance, or an inadequate education, or the forecast marginal cost of gaining information being greater than the forecast marginal revenue, or an immediate need to act even in awareness of not possessing all the information, and so on. Ignorance could also arise out of not-so-innocent reasons, varying in their degree of evil, ranging from impatience, slapdashery and other laziness to outright evasion and pretence.

The cause in error is that, for whatever reason, the actor did not employ proper methods to gain or interpret information or techniques of interpretation (note a suggestion of recursion regarding methods to learn methods, which is actually a reference to the need to understand the spiral nature of induction and to be able to reduce knowledge to perceptual data). Innocent reasons for error include interruptions of trains of thought, other distractions, and the general fallibility of men. Not so innocent reasons are the same as for ignorance, varying in their particulars.

Immediacy of interests: concern for consequences in the immediate future comes at the expense of concern for consequences further down the track. Distinct from begin in a rush. Also distinct from knowing those further consequences while not caring because of having no reason to care, ie distinct from the apres-nous attitude. IoI applies when people would personally regret their actions at a later date. Is a cause of both ignorance and error: ignorance through failing to pursue required information or technique because of the future being relatively unreal, and error through underweighting their importance.

Basic values: certain actions are taken because of felt need to act in consistency with moral norms. Again, causative of both ignorance and error. Currently predominantly sinful, because of evasion of questioning those norms and hence both ignorance and error. Need not be sinful and will, among fully rational people, actually be part of what is normal, and perhaps the greater part of causes for the Law playing out. In the face of incomplete knowledge of detail (an inevitability, varying only in hierarchical degree) one must act according to principle. This but the root of the need for rational moral principles! Like it or not, this then leads to Merton’s “basic values”. No business treating this as a wholly separate issue, therefore - possible cross-ref of Merton’s sociology perspective to Schumpeter’s annoying superciliousness towards the very concept of morality in HEA?

Relevance paradox: information or technique was not obtained because of a lack of awareness of the need to pursue that information or technique. The identification of the need for them would only arise after they had already been attained. This is an instance of ignorance as causative.

As a side note, following on from this analysis of causes, I don’t think that the focus on negative instances is purely a reflection of a malevolent universe premise. I suspect that the larger part of instances in actual fact will be negative. This comes not from ignorance and error, but how life as a material phenomenon is thermodynamically unstable (“life does not have the passive stability of inanimate matter”, as Dr Binswanger put it), and how also the material values that men pursue are either likewise thermodynamically unstable (or at best delicately metastable) and will become more so as our technical abilities improve. The result is that it is easier to go wrong accidentally than to go right accidentally: that is, there will in reality be more unanticipated consequences that will be undesirable than will be beneficial. But this is only a deduction and a mere suspicion not backed by a comprehensive survey.

Requisite knowledge of concepts and principles

Causality: generalise from instances, apparently rooted ultimately in one’s identification of self-efficacy as an infant. Makes sense - how else would one teach what the word ‘cause’ means? I saw a leaf swinging in air as though on the end of a string. I could not see such a string, but then I finally glimpsed a long thin strand of spider web, glittering in what sunlight filtered through the shade of the tree that the leaf presumably came from. “Stickiness!” The stickiness causes the leaf to be caught there, swinging around in the wind and unable to be blown away. Tautness of strands of line or whatever - feel for oneself by pulling on string or trying to break up a spider web. Causes what’s on the ends to be hung there (ref yoyo craze, heh!). Feel of weight of object on upturned palm. Ever heavier objects. Crush and pain! Then see things breaking because of weights being put on them, or hung from them (yay Hills Hoists! Yeehah! Crash bang whoops!). Heaviness caused the breakage because of force exerted - "push” and “pull” to a child.

Action (general)
Identity (axiomatic - ItOE ref)

human action (BTDT, don’t reiterate over much!)

anticipation and the unanticipated; forecasting and prediction
logic, rational judgement
principle, concept, concrete

consciousness (also axiomatic)
consciousness as possessing identity
the crow and the raven, other quantitative limits
capacity for error
volition; focus vs evasion/pretence
the speed of thought (cool Dune ref!) versus need for action

The complexity of existence, including the intricacy of those complexities themselves. There’s so much going on that is relevant that it is impossible for anyone to know all of it. Much is not readily knowable at all, never mind in detail.

Four sets of observations are relevant here. The first is what it takes to identify the principle of the Conservation of Energy (we can safely ignore nuclear physics and also the very tiny bit of mass lost or gained in chemical reactions that E=MC^2 does technically apply to). It is, for the practical purposes of the economist, neither created nor destroyed. It only changes form.

The second is that there is not just a single switch from a cause to an immediate effect but there are entire chains of causes and effects: A affects B, which affects C, which affects D, and so on. The integration of this with the Conservation of energy (which includes its own set of observations again as well as intellectual feats of integration) is that the chains of cause-and-effect do not end just because a particular desired end has been achieved. The flow of causes and effects keeps on going and going and going, putting the Energizer Bunny to shame. Both the intended and unintended consequences could lie anywhere along that chain of cause and effect, could occur in either order, and both could even be comprised of consequences from multiple points. More often than not, though, the unintended consequences occur in the more remote links of the chain.

The third is that the chains are not singles. The one cause can have multiple effects on different things, leading to multiple daughter-chains, with some of those in turn having multiple granddaughter chains, and so on ad infinitum. As before, some of these chains may result in the particular consequence being aimed at, while others will have consequences that weren’t. Also, when one integrates this fan-out phenomenon with the conservation of energy (ditto commentary on observation and integration), the result is most of what the concept of entropy refers to. As the chains fan out, they also dissipate in their strength, until eventually the effects of the particular cause originated by an actor are so spread out as to be absorbed into and becoming part of the background noise, as it were.

The fourth is that not every progression of cause and effect down those chains is oh so linear. Even with entropy considered, the flow of energy is not always the continued spread, dissipation and dissolving into the background. In the real world there are also such things as there are amplification and leverage effects of varying kinds. There are also capacities for storage and release of energies, and associated with that there are activation energies and other thresholds for triggering events. Many effects are binary and quantised in nature: either they are triggered or they are not, and when triggered the effects have the same definite characteristics every time, such as electrons moving up and down orbit levels as they absorb or emit packets of energy of specific sizes. In the extreme, there is the phenomenon captured by the concept of “chaos theory,” that in some cases there systems so delicately balanced that very small influences can have incredibly enormous effects.

Validating all these I leave that to courses in physics to deal with. The courses in question should be high-school level, which means even those who want to be economists when they grow up should have been exposed to sufficient evidence for the above. That being said, the philosophically-minded industrial-strength nerd in me demands that I point out that I have felt with painful fingers my own instances of Count Rumsford’s observations in drilling metal, and that carbon-black from overheated cutting fluid suddenly welling up from holes being drilled is eerily reminiscent of biologically-oriented sci-fi horror flicks.

Example from literature (and film): in the Dune universe the identification of third and fourth order consequences is said to be achievable only by a Mentat (“It is by will alone I sent my mind in motion. It is by the juice of sapho that thoughts acquire speed, the lips acquire stains, the stains become a warning.”) Beyond that, though, nobody has a chance - except the Kwisatz Haderach, of course.

moral principles as application of principle of forecasting and acting WRT principles ID’d from obs
prospective marginal cost of information versus prospective marginal benefit in value-pursuit

Re “always”?

observing that while there may always be unintended consequences this does not mean that we always care about those consequences. A critical element in the law’s import is that it relates to man’s values. There are times when it seems as though there aren’t any unintended consequences, but I argue that they are always there and that they are not brought to mind because they are both unidentified and not worth worrying about. That is, they’re there, but their significance is zilch.

Consider, for example, the consequences of inviting someone to your home on a hot or cold day, which would include not just the obvious things such as your time and sharing tea or coffee, but also an extra load on your air conditioner or heater. Certainly, some people do care and act accordingly (I’ve actually been a guest in another’s house in that circumstance, ref to common practice of people risking death by rationing the aircon or heater, and so on), but most would not care and never think about these consequences. Still, trivial does not mean non-existent, as those who do not find them so trivial will be sure to inform you of.

Cross integration of the law with other fields

The Law touches on the phenomenon of long-range order from short-range action, though this law focuses on specifically volitional action by man.

The law comports with economies as systems analysable to some extent in an engineering fashion; feedback loops and the like, leading to natural harmonics and the like

Implications of the Law

The law concretises the greatness of the need to identify principles of action in general as a basis for forecasting. As part of that there is a need for moral principles; cost-benefit analyses are not enough for bases of action; back-tie with the “basic values” causes

The need to look out for consequences more remote from the time of action, particularly in economics because of the existence of quantitative systems; Hazlitt’s One Lesson

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