Thomas Sowell

        Over the years, the phrase "unintended consequences" has come up
   with increasing frequency, as more and more wonderful-sounding ideas
   have led to disastrous results. By now, you might think that people
   with wonderful-sounding ideas would start to question what the
   consequences would turn out to be and would devote as much time to
   discovering those consequences as to getting their ideas accepted and
   turned into laws and policies. But that seldom, if ever, happens.
        Why doesn�t it? Because a lot depends on what it is you are
   trying to accomplish. If your purpose is to achieve the heady feeling
   of being one of the moral elite, then that can be accomplished without
   the long and tedious work of following up on results.
        The worldwide crusade to ban the pesticide DDT is a classic
   example. This crusade was begun by the much-revered Rachel Carson,
   whose best-selling book "Silent Spring" was based on the premise that
   DDT�s adverse effects on the eggs of song birds would end up wiping
   out these species. After that, springtime would no longer be marked by
   birds singing; hence the silent spring.
        Rachel Carson and the environmentalists she inspired have
   succeeded in getting DDT banned in country after country, for which
   they have received the accolades of many, not least their own
   accolades. But, in terms of the actual consequences of that crusade,
   there has not been a mass murderer executed in the past half-century
   who has been responsible for as many deaths of human beings as the
   sainted Rachel Carson. The banning of DDT has led to a huge resurgence
   of malaria in the Third World, with deaths rising into the millions.
        This pioneer of the environmental movement has not been judged by
   such consequences, but by the inspiring goals and political success of
   the movement she spawned. Still less are the environmentalists held
   responsible for the blackouts plaguing California in the past year or
   the more frequent blackouts and more disastrous economic consequences
   that can be expected in the years ahead, despite the key role of
   environmental extremists in preventing power plants from being built.
        The greens have likewise obstructed access to the fuels needed to
   generate electricity, run automobiles and trucks, and perform
   innumerable other tasks in the economy. Nationwide, the greens have
   been so successful in preventing oil refineries from being built that
   the last one constructed anywhere in the United States was built
   during the Ford administration. But environmentalists are seldom
   mentioned among the reasons for today�s short supplies of oil and the
   resulting skyrocketing prices of gasoline.
        Advocates of rent control are not judged by the housing shortages
   that invariably follow, but by their professed desire to promote
   "affordable housing" for all. Nor are those who have promoted price
   controls on food in various countries being judged by the hunger,
   malnutrition or even starvation that have followed. They are judged by
   their laudable goal of seeking to make food affordable by the poor
   even if the poor end up with less food than before.
        Some try to argue against the evidence for these and other
   counterproductive consequences of high-sounding policies. But what is
   crucial is that those who advocated such policies usually never
   bothered to seek evidence on their own and have resented the evidence
   presented by others. In short, what they advocated had the intended
   consequences for themselves making them feel good and there was far
   less interest in the unintended consequences for others.
        Even before the rise of today�s many social activist movements,
   T.S. Eliot understood such people and their priorities. Writing in
   1950, he said: "Half the harm that is done in this world is due to
   people who want to feel important. They don�t mean to do harm but the
   harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it
   because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of
        There is little hope of changing such people. But what the rest
   of us can do is stop gullibly accepting their ego trips as idealistic
   efforts for others. Above all, we need to stop letting them morally
   intimidate us into silence about the actual consequences of their
   crusades. The time is long overdue for us to insist that they put up
   or shut up, in terms of hard evidence about results, rather than the
   pious hopes that make them feel so good.

   Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.