There's a great discussion of the law of unintended consequences going on in several places and it's a discussion that has resonance with the church and the Christian faith. Before commenting let me give you the players in the discussion. I may not have all the relationships in proper order here as far as who is responding to who, but if you check these posts out you'll get the gist (the posts aren't too long so you can read them and it will be worthwhile).
The Freakonomics guys did a column for the New York Times Magazines on Unintended Consequences where they looked at three examples of unintended consequences - how the Americans with Disabilities Act has harmed Americans with Disabilities by leading to a sharp drop in employment for them, how Jewish seventh year sabbatical laws got corrupted and came to harm the poor they were created to protect and how the Endangered Species Act has led to the destruction of habitats of endangered species.
This causes Andrew at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science to wonder exactly what kind of "law" the "law of unintended consequences" is? He points to another post where he argues that often the "unintended" consequences were in fact "intended." I suppose that would be like the woman who never intended to blow the week's budget on new clothes, but somehow found herself in a department store or some pastors who intend to quit buying books they don't read but somehow often find themselves in bookstores and don't know how they got there.
Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution comes through with a definition of the law of unintended consequences that the Freakonomics guys like:
The law of unintended consequences is what happens when a simple system tries to regulate a complex system. The political system is simple, it operates with limited information (rational ignorance), short time horizons, low feedback, and poor and misaligned incentives. Society in contrast is a complex, evolving, high-feedback, incentive-driven system. When a simple system tries to regulate a complex system you often get unintended consequences.
I like that, but speaking only for myself, I was hoping for more definition on the difference between a simple and a complex system. The comments on Alex Tabarrok's post are almost too many to read, but there is one comment by Stephen Downes that I think helps on my question:
A 'simple system' is a system where linear cause-and-effect relations hold. A 'complex system' is one in which the same cause may have multiple effects.
This clarification is important because the 'contrast' in the quote cited above in fact includes a number of simple systems. 'high-feedback' and 'incentive-driven' systems are types of simple systems - they suppose that a certain cause - feedback, or incentives - will produce the desired result.
I am also wondering if Mr. Downes might say that in a complex system a single effect may have multiple causes? It seems to me that this is the case.
Which leads me to speculate on how this applies to the religious realm.
That we deal with unintended consequences on a daily basis seems to me to be a given. Why we deal with them and how to deal with them is not so "given."
The pre-Reformation era Roman Catholic church could not have foreseen the frustrations that their practices built up in the general populace which could lead to the reformation. In their attempts to restore the purity of the gospel to the church, Luther and Calvin and Zwingli could not have foreseen how their disagreements about the sacraments, church government and other things would lead to the fracturing of the protestant church into so many denominations. Churches often don't foresee how cracking down on the youth for their own good often lead the youth to abandon the church. Ministers don't foresee how their devotion to their work sometimes causes them to lose their families and with that, they lose the work they are so devoted to.
At the same time, it seems to me that the "law" of unintended consequence can also work in a positive fashion. I suppose it is a testimony to the way we all gravitate toward and notice the negative that I am having trouble coming up with examples of this, but I have no doubt that, in a world full of common grace there is a lot of unintended goodness that happens. Think of the kid who resisted the gospel for a long time but whose heart melted because a Christian simply cared enough to remember his name.
In any case, the discussion on these blogs reveals one thing - we often don't understand the number of and relationships between any given cause or series of causes and effect, or series of effects. Further we are unable to predict the future. We may look at an effect today or a series of effects and may ascertain to some degree their cause or causes. But we can't predict what new forces are going to act on those present day effects in the future.
And I don't know what the answers are except to say that great deal of humility is in order, as does Alex Tabarrok:
Does the law of unintended consequences mean that the government should never try to regulate complex systems? No, of course not, but it does mean that regulators should be humble (no trying to remake man and society) and the hurdle for regulation should be high.
It seems to me that a good deal of the angst of unintended consequences comes from our compulsion to control and regulate things we have no business trying to control and regulate. I remember being interviewed (a.k.a. examined, grilled, skewered) for entrance a presbytery and was asked what to do with someone who wasn't qualified to take the Lord's Supper. With my characteristic brilliance I said "Um . . . well . . . first of all . . . uh . . . you know . . . it's kind of like . . . um . . . " Fortunately one of the
inquisitors examiners came to my rescue and said, "it's your job to declare what the Scripture says, it's the Holy Spirit's job to apply that to the person's heart." In other words, I could leave the individual to God.
That won't work in every situation - if my kid gets drunk and wrecks the car I'm not just going to leave him to God, I have every intention of being God's instrument of discipline. But the point is well taken - we live in a complex world and we are foolish to think we can control and regulate beings as complex as human beings with simple solutions.
Here are some podcasts from Steve Brown that I have been listening to the last few days. They touch on what it means that God is God and we're not and we don't have to always be right and we don't have to try to fix people and situations - which is on point for this discussion.