In my most recent blog post I, somewhat clumsily,Â implied that so-called “unintended” consequences are better referred to as “secondary” or “unmentioned” consequences.
It occurs to me that I need toÂ explain a bit better what I mean. It is perhaps more accurate to say that that we economists, as outside observers, can virtually never know if a consequence of an actionÂ was “unintended” by the actor. Also, to sayÂ a consequenceÂ is “unintended”Â assumesÂ away responsibility for badÂ decision making.
Indeed, I have been thinking aboutÂ this lately and have come to the conclusion that there is an even deeper scientific reason toÂ eject the “unintended” consequences construct/notion from our work as economists.
Namely, it seems to me it violates the value freedom (wertfreiheit) principle for which Mises (and most Austrians since Menger)Â advocated so tirelessly.
DoesÂ not claimingÂ an outcomeÂ of an actionÂ is “unintended” imply we have full knowledgeÂ of the actor’s intent?Â As economists, andÂ third party observers, how can weÂ possibly knowÂ the actor’s intentionsÂ (beyond those he or she tells us)Â any more than we can know his or herÂ motives?
Clearly there is a difference between motive and intent; nevertheless, these are both phenomena which can only be truly known by the actor. To use language which implies we know either motive or intent violates wertfreiheit.
Furthermore, from a purely logical stand point, it is simply incorrect for a third party (economist) to call an outcome of a purposeful actionÂ by another “unintended.”
If an outcome can be comprehended by reason and/or imagination after an action has occurred then that same outcomeÂ can alsoÂ be comprehended by reason and/or imaginationÂ prior to the action. Whether or not the actor did, or did not,Â comprehend — prior to his action — the outcome his action obtained, is notÂ an issueÂ of concern to us as economists.Â Â Indeed, we, as third party observers, can never know what the actor truly thought.Â Thus, to avoid violating wertfreiheit,Â we, as economists, must assume all outcomesÂ can be (but might not be)Â comprehended by the actor prior to action.Â If allÂ outcomes or consequences can be (but might not be)Â comprehended by the actor prior to action then we cannot logically say that any consequence is “unintended”Â since we simply do not know if it was intended or not.
Hence, for the economist,Â a consequence should just be aÂ consequence.
Nevertheless, it is reasonable to call those consequences which fall beyond the bounds specifically circumscribed by the actor prior to his action as â€œsecondaryâ€ or â€œunmentionedâ€ etc. We cannot, however, as value free scientists, call them â€œunintended.â€
It seems to me the only consequences which could conceivably be unanticipated prior to action are those brought about by pure chance or “acts of god” which are not really consequences at all. Rather, they are maters of coincidenceÂ and as suchÂ the economist hasÂ nothing of value to say about them.
Peace and Free Enterprise
Mark D Hughes
Institute for the Study of Privacy Issues (ISPI)