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The Law of Unintended Consequences as it Relates to Regulations

Updated on September 28, 2021
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Nyamweya is a Kenyan scholar who has done many years of research on a diversity of topics


Many people would ask the question about the law of unintended consequences especially as it relates to regulation requirement. A Simple answer would be that this law is what actually results when a simple system tries to regulate a complex or larger system. A good example is a political system which is considered to be simple and which operates with a limited amount of information, low feedback levels, limited horizons and misplaced incentives in comparison to society which is evolving, complex, incentive driven with high feedback levels. Unintended consequences will, therefore, results when a simple system like the political system tries to regulate a complex system like the society.


The American sociologist Merton (1936) was the one who popularized this term in the twentieth century. The unintended consequences can be categorized into three types. These include 1)Unexpected drawback: where an unexpected detriment occurs in addition to the desired policy effect , 2)Unexpected benefit: a positive benefit which was unexpected occurs, this can be considered as luck and finally 3) Perverse result which is a complete opposite of what was expected to happen. Making the problem worse than it was. It is also known as a backfire. Unintended consequences are not only localized to the government's’ control and regulation of society but also traverses other areas like the ecosystem, physical systems, and other areas.

A regulation requiring apartments to have heating systems and air conditioning for example, will create a situation where the landlord feels the pinch more than the tenant. But this can lead to a situation where the landlord will actually pass the cost to the tenant by increasing rent and this will have negative outcomes to both the landlord and the tenant. When regulation brings negative results against incentives, they tend to push back and this creates unintended consequences. However, not all regulation is anti-incentive, some regulations will try to change incentives but this is difficult because incentives are complex and tend to resist incentive-driven regulations.

Can Ethics be Regulated?

The answer is very complex because the government can set a code of ethics for civil servants but it becomes difficult to enforce because of varying interests that individuals have. The private sector will try to formulate their own ethics without the interference of the government but again it boils down to individual interest and whether those regulations have the goodwill of individuals. Most will see these ethics as a way of curtailing their freedom and will resist any attempts at enforcing the regulations.

Does this, therefore, mean that the law of unintended consequences should stop a government from trying to regulate complex systems and especially ethics? The answer is definitely not. However, the government should adopt an approach of trying to understand social issues and not try to change the way systems operate just for the sake of it.

Errors in problem analysis on the part of government can result in unintended consequences when it comes to regulating ethics. The government should correctly diagnose the problem before actually prescribing any ethical requirements. Ignorance on the part of both the government and the subjects on these requirements will also result in unintended consequences since there is a lack of understanding which is necessary in order to ensure a smooth flow of regulations. All these causes of unintended consequences were identified by Merton (1936) when he came up with the 5 causes of unintended consequences.


In conclusion it can be said that the law of unintended consequences relates to the regulation requirements in many different ways depending on the outcomes which result from such an interaction. Regulation requirements might trigger certain outcomes which were totally unexpected and whose intention was different. These outcomes can be positive, negative or mixed depending on the situation at hand. Therefore, we can rightly say that ethics should not be regulated.


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