Sketchplanations

Explaining one thing a week in a sketch

The law of unintended consequences

People are complicated. Life is complicated. Ecosystems are complicated. Alex Tabarrok writes, “The law of unintended consequences is what happens when a simple system tries to regulate a complex system.” This so often happens in any kind of government program, regulation, law or attempt to control something within a complex system with a relatively simple action. Things will happen that we didn’t anticipate.

Examples abound:

  • A policy of suppressing forest fires that goes on to cause even greater fires.
  • An attempt in Bogotá to reduce traffic by restricting who could drive each day based on licence plates that led people to circumvent the policy by buying more cars.
  • More open workplaces that cause people to behave more privately.
  • Elimination of predators that leads to the proliferation of grazing animals and a reduction in diversity.
  • The effects of literally any dam built anywhere.
  • What happens when you change software.
  • Desire paths.
  • The Streisand effect.
  • Or social distancing policies that results in outdoor natural spaces being crammed with people at weekends.
  • And on, and on.

Often, as with some of these, the outcome can be the opposite of what you intended, known as the cobra effect.

Controlling complex systems is difficult.

Thanks to Bruce Howard for supporting this one.

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