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  • Paul Adlam

Unintended Consequences


Britain is in turmoil and Boris appears to be left outside the corridors of power. I feel sure that Boris could never have imagined being on the ‘winning” side of the Brexit debate, with David Cameron announcing his resignation, but not be in the running for the top job.

What you can be sure is that the law of unintended consequences throws up some interesting scenarios and situations that were never imagined. When a solution to a problem actually makes it worse, it is sometimes called the “Cobra Effect”. At the time of the Raj, when Britain ruled India, it came to their attention that there was a problem with venomous snakes, and in particular cobras. To tackle this problem the authorities announced that they would pay a reward for every dead cobra delivered. This solution appeared at first to be successful - the incidents of snakebites dramatically decreased and it was noticeable that there were fewer snakes around.

However, there was no let up in the amount of dead cobras being brought to the British “masters” and the amount being paid out in rewards. On investigation, it was found that entrepreneurial locals had created snake farms in order to collect the reward money. They had seen the opportunity to make money and were breeding and then killing the snakes for profit. The British soon put a stop to that and stopped paying out, so the Indians let all the snakes loose. The result, of course, was that there were more snakes than ever and the British had spent a great deal of money creating the exact opposite of what they wanted.

Could the British have anticipated this consequence? With a little bit of forethought and planning (and a little less arrogance), they probably could have.

A similar situation occurred at the turn of the 19th century in what we now call Vietnam. This time the colonial rulers were the French, and they wanted to add a bit of grandeur to the streets of Hanoi to live in. They built magnificent large houses on wide avenues with high ceilings, shuttered windows and balconies to sit on to catch a breeze and watch the world go by. They were constructed with all of the mod cons available to them at that time, including proper sanitation with flushing toilets and a piped sewage system. You can still see these properties sitting magnificently, if not a little awkwardly, in areas of modern day Hanoi.

The French owners loved them, but soon so did some locals that were not invited in as guests - rats. The rats made their homes in the new sewage pipework and were able to access not only different parts of a house, but whole interconnected avenues of gleaming French town houses. They would pop up the toilet much to the surprise and disgust of the owners. This of course was already an unintended consequence, but a more unbelievable one was to follow.

The solution to the rat problem was obvious – get rid of the rats. Similar to the British colonials and their snake problem, the French offered a reward for rat-tails. It is presumed that they didn’t ask for the whole dead rat as they would then have to dispose of the body, so rat-tails it was

The tails came pouring in and the financial rewards went pouring out. However, the problem didn’t go away. There started to be reports of rats running around without tails. The French investigated and found that rats were being caught, their tails cut off, and then released to continue breeding. Worse than that it was discovered that the Vietnamese were breeding rats to earn money from their uninvited rulers.

With the beauty of hindsight these unintended consequences could have been easily avoided - surely this couldn’t happen in today’s world?

Well, in Bogata, Columbia they have a terrible traffic congestion problem. There is a population of 8 million people crammed into a city that doesn’t have an underground system. There is a Bus Rapid Transport System (BRT) that carries 1.6 million people a day, but with 38% of users being victims of crime, it’s no wonder that many residents prefer to use their cars. To combat this, the government brought in a measure to halve traffic congestion in one fell swoop - a system where, on alternate days, only cars with the last number on their number plate being odd or even were allowed on the road. At first it seemed to work. Congestion reduced and very stiff penalties were introduced to deter people using false number plates. The cars then started to come back. The amount of car users increased from about 500,00 in 2002 to over 1.3 million in 2012. What had happened? It was quite simple - people were buying more cars. If someone needed a car to get to and from work they were buying an extra car registered with an odd or even number plates to suit. Families went from a one car household to two and even four if both the husband and wife needed a car to commute. The unintended consequence of trying to reduce the amount of cars had actually resulted in more and had been a boon to the car manufacturers, garages and their associated businesses.

Back to UK politics - when both Ed and David Miliband vied for the leadership of the Labour party, few could have seen the ensuing unintended consequences of Ed “stabbing” his brother in the back and using the power of the Trade Unions to back his candidacy and ensure that he became the new Labour leader. Ed could never be accepted by the labour voters and lost the General Election of 2015 to the Tories. David Cameron, expecting at best a narrow victory, promised that there would be a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EU to ward off the rise of Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and deal with the Eurosceptics within his own party. It seems likely that if Labour’s leader had been David Miliband it could all have been a different story. He quite possibly could have won the election for Labour and we wouldn’t have had the unintended referendum and unexpected consequence of the Brexit vote and political wilderness for Boris.

Of course, unintended consequences can be positive (and many may think Boris’s downfall to be one of these) – for example, aspirin is a pain killer and was developed to be so, but it has also the unintended consequence of being an anti coagulant that is beneficial in treating heart conditions. The WWII Pacific battlegrounds that resulted in human and natural devastation involved the sinking of a huge amount of ships and apparel. These sunken ships and military equipment now host a wealth of beautiful coral that harbour and sustain a vast array of sea life. It’s hard to believe that anyone could have foreseen that. The Indian Cobra farmers and Vietnamese Rat breeders took advantage of their situations. I am sure the Colombian car industry didn’t hang around in selling cars and expanded to suit.

If you are unsure or concerned about how the Brexit vote could impact you or your business, perhaps take some time to consider what the unintended consequences might be. There may be opportunities not immediately obvious that you can take advantage of. Because if you don’t, someone else will….


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