09 May 2011

When unintended consequences aren't

The Thinker | Jeffrey Ellis | The original progressive architects were partisans of human inequity
Moreover, the older progressive habits of thought have not completely died out, especially when the interests of foreign or immigrant workers are at issue. For example, opponents of liberalized international trade claim that such trade improperly allows multinational corporations to “exploit” unskilled workers in labor-intensive industries in impoverished countries. Exploitation, in this context, seems to have no specific definition beyond “we don’t think they are getting paid enough.” Yet, basic economic theory suggests that if one substantially raised the wage levels of such workers, without improving their productivity via capital investment or otherwise, their employers would become less competitive and their jobs would be terminated. Given that calls for tighter trade rules are rarely accompanied by plans to increase the productivity of the workers allegedly suffering “exploitation,” the implicit argument is that it is better that the jobs held by these workers not exist at all.
I really have to object to this last sentence. The authors are saying that progressives must want foreign workers to not have jobs, since the end result of forcing higher wages is that their jobs be terminated due to poor competitiveness of their employers. But this presupposes that progressives actually understand that loss of jobs will be the end results of their actions. Really, this is about as fair as progressives saying that conservatives must want poor people to starve to death, or as fair as conservatives claiming that liberals must want to wreck the economy. These types of claims violate the principle of reciprocity because they unfairly impute bad motives on groups of people. When I see a statement like this at the end of an otherwise seemingly well-written paper, I have to question how much of the preceding was biased as well.
I have to disagree with Ellis' criticism. I think there comes a point at which the "unintended" but entirely foreseeable consequences of actions no longer can be counted an unintended.  And at that point we come back to a prior Bottom Elephant — if all you have are good intentions, you don't even have those.

Let's say everyone walks around carrying an egg in their hand. Some group of reformers wants people not to have one hand tied up in egg-holding, and advocates that everyone drop their egg. The reformers don't want broken eggs all over the ground, they just want everyone to have two free hands.  But broken eggs are the inevitable outcome of their policy.

Should I claim the reformers want to break eggs? That's not their explicit desire, but that is what will happen. Their ignorance of the way gravity will act on eggs to cause their acceleration and ultimate destruction is not an excuse. They may not understand that eggs will break, but they should.  I think, therefore, that it is fair to blame them for wanting broken eggs.

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See also:
WSJ | Jason Riley | Race, Politics and the Minimum Wage: Minimum-wage proponents argue that a higher wage floor will improve the standard of living for poor families. The reality is that higher labor costs reduce employment, especially for young black men.

[...] Minimum-wage proponents argue that a higher wage floor will improve the standard of living for poor families. The reality is that higher labor costs reduce employment, especially for younger workers, and the greatest amount of pain is felt by black men. The Even and Macpherson study finds that among whites males ages 16-24, each 10% increase in a federal or state minimum wage has decreased employment by 2.5%. For Hispanic males, the figure is 1.2%. "But among black males in this group, each 10% increase in the minimum wage has decreased employment by 6.5%."

The effect on the black community is so pronounced, write the authors, that "employment losses for 16-to-24 year-old black males between 2007 and 2010 could have been nearly 50% lower had the federal and state minimum wages remained at the January 2007 level."

It gets worse. Not all states were fully affected by the federal minimum wage increases because some already mandated a minimum wage above the federal requirement. But in the 21 states that were fully affected, about 13,200 black young adults lost their job as a direct result of the recession, versus 18,500 who lost their job as a result of the minimum-wage mandates. "In other words," write Messrs. Even and Macpherson, "the consequences of the minimum wage for this subgroup were more harmful than the consequences of the recession."


  1. It turns out my criticism was a bit off base, because the authors (as conveyed to me by a friend of mine who is familiar with them) did not intend to impute that opinion upon progressives to begin with.

    There does come a point where "unintended" consequences were completely foreseeable in the first place. I often wonder whether it's a hidden agenda of many progressives to keep poor people and minorities trapped in their current economic status, to better exploit them for political gain. But the principle of reciprocity, that all good critical thinkers should adhere to, requires us not to impute bad motives on someone unless we have corroborating evidence. It's hard to say just how much someone's ideological leanings will blind them to the bad outcomes of their policies, but I think it's enough so that I'm reluctant to ascribe that motive. It could just as well be the case that they are in denial regarding the fundamental flaws in their ideology.

  2. I see what you're saying.

    I think few people have an explicit motivation to keep people poor,* but I don't have a problem with criticizing policies which will have that effect as if that were the motivations. (Provided that outcome is clear enough, rather than a straightforward disagreement about the preferable way to help people.) I think I am trying to say that I aim to keep in mind that others typically don't have malicious motives, but I will readily accept that they might as well have such motives.

    * I think this is true as long as we limit ourselves to poor people of our own nationality. I actually think plenty of people, left and right, do not think a poor person in another country is as deserving as someone in their own country. They don't actually want a Chinese peasant to remain poor in an ideal world, but it is a sacrifice they are more than willing to make in a world of tradeoffs. People won't admit poor foreigners are less important than the relatively poor locals, but that is a common opinion revealed through actions.