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John Hood writes for Daily Journal: Well-intended programs can do harm

John Hood writes for Carolina Journal‘s Daily Journal that government intervention and regulation can often have harmful, unintended consequences:

Friar Laurence has the best of intentions. But in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the friar’s well-intended interventions do not yield happy results.

Laurence’s initial good intention is to end the destructive conflict between two warring families. That’s why he agrees to marry Romeo and Juliet, though their romance is both sudden and perilous. Later, the friar recognizes their true love and gives Juliet a potion so she can fake her death and slip away to be reunited with Romeo. Neither scheme works. The unintended consequence of Laurence’s intervention is the death of star-crossed lovers.

When government actors translate their own good intentions into policy interventions, the consequences may not be so tragic. But all too often, they produce unintended and adverse consequence for many affected parties.

A famous example was the initial roll-out of child-safety caps for pharmaceuticals. The intention was to reduce incidence of accidental poisonings. And the new caps did so in many cases. But the intervention to frustrate the efforts of children to gain access to pills also frustrated the efforts of adults, especially seniors and those with disabilities, to open the containers. Some ended up leaving the caps off their medications altogether, which actually made it easier for kids to gain access and poison themselves.

For others, the regulation produced what scholar Kip Viscusi termed a “lulling effect.” Bringing home bottles with so-called childproof caps, these adults weren’t as careful in where they stored their meds. Their children noticed, got curious, and learned to manipulate the caps.

Other safety rules have produced a similar effect, a form of what is called “moral hazard.” In response to regulations requiring safety features on automobiles, for example, some motorists felt so reassured that they drove more recklessly.

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