No Free Lunch

The road to hell…

/ 05:09 AM November 28, 2017

What happens when well-meaning policies achieve results contrary to the common good? The latest book from government think tank Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS), titled “Unintended Consequences: The Folly of Uncritical Thinking,” examines 10 such instances—and there certainly are many more. Sadly, our history is replete with examples of policies with good intentions but because of failure to invoke solid evidence or take a wider view of the economy and society, achieve outcomes that worsen, rather than improve, public welfare. Many such policy mishaps are age-old and persistent, as if our policymakers and our people who elect them never learned the lessons from failures of such misplaced policies.

Achieving the greatest good for the greatest number defines what is good policy and what is not. But we all know that we can’t always assume policy initiatives to be grounded on this noble principle. The reality is, certain policies are grounded on less than noble objectives, and unabashedly aimed to promote the interests of a tyrannical few whose money and influence can get them what they want, even if at the expense of everyone else. Even so, “Unintended Consequences,” edited by PIDS scholars Vicente Paqueo, Aniceto Orbeta and PIDS president Gilbert Llanto, implicitly takes it for granted that good intentions underlie the policies featured in the volume. Generally, they see uncritical thinking and failure to consider numerical evidence as the main problem. More particularly, the authors identify five sources of unintended consequences: “ignorance,” “error,” “imperious immediacy of interest,” “basic values,” and “self defeating predictions.”


As examples of the first, they cite misplaced criticism of the government’s conditional cash transfer program, Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (aka 4Ps), and opposition to comprehensive sex education under the Reproductive Health Law. “Ignorance” need not mean people don’t have information on hand, but may not use information otherwise easily obtainable, prior to adopting a position or opinion. Many critics thus see 4Ps simply as a public cost to be minimized, rather than as an investment in human capital with eventual returns that can be maximized. They think of the program as a simple doleout rather than an investment in the long-term future of the recipient poor family (and ultimately, of Filipino society), which is what it really is.

“Error” as a source of unintended consequences is usually brought about by habitual action seen to have often led to success. An example cited is the grant of fiscal incentives to small and medium enterprises, which, rather than raise employment, led firms to substitute labor with more capital, made relatively less costly by incentives. Other examples cited are the age-old six month regularization law, proposals to abolish all forms of temporary employment contracts, and high minimum wage proposals.


“Imperious immediacy of interest” refers to “instances when the intended consequences of an action are wanted so much that unintended effects are purposefully ignored.” For example, the import ban on rice was motivated by the aspiration to produce all the rice we consume, with the parallel aim of protecting local rice farmers. But this pushed up local rice prices, in turn leading to high rates of malnutrition and child stunting, and ironically, wide food insecurity among the poor. “Basic values” underlie the total log ban policy aimed to reduce or eliminate illegal logging; instead it actually led to its increase. Rent control laws exemplify “self-defeating predictions” causing unintended results, as owners were led to hold back on maintaining their rental housing units. Tenants thus ended up bearing the burden of repair costs, ultimately leading them to spend more.

Two age-old maxims come to mind in all this. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is one, but as the book argues, good intentions not supported by evidence and sound analysis may end up making society, especially the poor, worse off.

In the end, it’s best to take heed of the warning of another maxim: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

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