History is replete with examples of people, governments, empires and other institutions doing seemingly good or at least benign things that end up having far reaching and often devastating consequences. Take the Greeks for example. High off their success in war and peace, they lost track of the importance of self sufficiency.
Finding it easier to purchase the things they formerly made, specifically food, using the spoils accumulated by conquering others, they spent more than they had and eventually filed a Hellenistic form of bankruptcy; their empire collapsed and was absorbed by an energetic upstart called Rome. Call it a hostile takeover.
Rome was successful for a very long time. As long as there was territory to conquer, slaves to capture and put to work, along with lots of loot, this empire thrived. They also managed to sew up the known world, from Africa to Britain.
Along the way, it seemed like a good idea to make Roman citizens of these conquered people. It was a sensible, magnanimous, as well as practical gesture that ensured the coffers in Rome a steady flow of taxes from the provinces.
What they didn’t anticipate was that Roman citizens couldn’t be slaves. It took a while, but eventually the slave-based economy began to run short of laborers because there was nothing left to conquer. Like the Greeks many centuries before, Rome began purchasing the things she once did for herself like food production, but most notably, defense against aggressors. Well, we all know how that worked out. The hired help took over the company and booted management.
More recently, the Civil War was fought arguably to preserve the Union from states bent on secession. It was not a good idea. The south had no chance to defeat the north based simply on the fact they had no factories. With a population that was estimated at 40-percent slave, like the Greeks and Romans, many southerners were removed from the means of production.
Lincoln said, in effect, “If I could preserve the union and not free a single slave, I would do that. If I could preserve the union by freeing them all, I would do that.” The latter won out, although it took another century to realize a measure of closure for that consequence.
Chamberlain with Hitler at Munich claiming peace in our time led to the London Blitz. Kamikazes trying to convince the U.S. that an invasion of Japan was too dear a price to pay led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Who knew?
Today, there is a lot of buzz around about unintended consequences. Much of it is directed toward our esteemed elected officials in Washington and the aggressive course being set by the administration. I doubt that many Americans believe access to health care for everyone is a bad idea. But history repeatedly shows that often good, generous, idealistic ideas can generate unintended consequences. It’s not the basic idea, but its long-term execution that gets sticky.
Take Social Security for example. It started as a simple insurance program. Pay premiums through your working life, and the money is invested and grows so you have an income supplement upon retirement. It seems pretty simple and worked well for a while.
Over time, though, what is simple seems to become complex because of meddling by well meaning representatives of the people. Actually, I am a beneficiary of such meddling.
My mother died when I was 2 years old. That was in the mid 1950s. By then, Social Security had tacked on a benefit called Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), of which I was one. I received a government check until I was 21, which helped put me through school.
ADC was a nice idea, but it failed to appreciate that neither my mother (who never worked) nor I put a dime into the Social Security trust fund. Yet my almost two decades of Social Security benefits had to come from somewhere.
Well, we know the shape of Social Security, today and ongoing. Tinkering with a simple, straightforward program should be a lesson, and I fear that lesson will be an unintended consequence of where we may be heading again.