Facebook’s initial public offering this week may serve as a useful reminder that sometimes our best intentions are disregarded. The devil fools with the best laid plans. Hell is paved both with sorrow and good intentions. But why do these old adages attribute responsibility entirely to the dark side? Might the rich getting richer be a simple matter of unintended consequences? Here are some thoughts to ponder:
Recently, a spectacularly wealthy American capitalist named Edward Conard has written a book with the catchphrase title of Unintended Consequences. The book makes a case for income inequality, bringing to light a litany of benefits bestowed upon public society by the venerable “one percent” class. The message is obviously self-serving. But in so doing, might the book’s message serve instead to have an opposite effect? Might its message unite the other ninety-nine percent, in a way the author had not intended?
US History serves some interesting examples of unintended consequences. There was a time when the US Supreme Court actually decided that black people had no right to sue in federal court, because they were considered to be a class of property, not people. The rationale was that the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights were not intended to apply to African Americans. Moreover, since blacks were not considered to be people, Congress did not have the power to exclude the institution of slavery from the US territories which were not yet states. The will of the people who lived in those territories, which may have been to the contrary, was disregarded.
The Supreme Court ruled that what needed protection was the slaveholder’s property rights, under the 5th amendment. To rule otherwise would violate the prohibition against the seizure of their property without just compensation. The human welfare of black people was said to be secondary.
Designed to solve the controversy over slavery once and for all in the years prior to the Civil War, the decision proved to be a major political miscalculation. In reality, the opinion represented a judicial defense of the most extreme slavery position. Instead of solving the crisis, the decision intensified sectional strife, undercut potential compromise solutions and weakened the moral authority of the judiciary. It was a case of unintended consequences.
Almost a hundred years later, the US Congress passed the last and most recent immigration law of substance in this country. The law ended the immigration-limiting European quota system of the 1920s. Some say it was designed to bring in more whites to the country.
When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration Act of 1965 at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, he stressed the law's overall symbolic importance:
This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives, or really add importantly to either our wealth or our power. Yet it is still one of the most important acts of this Congress and of this administration (as it) corrects a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American nation.
The president from Texas was not being uncharacteristically modest, saying only what his advisors and “experts” had told him. But, the myriad potential consequences of the new law, little noted at the time and ignored by most historians for decades, were appreciably misjudged by the president's experts.
(Next week's second segment charts the opposite, unintended effect of the law, some interesting immigration statistics and future projections, and projects a couple of present instances where the intent of the governing class may be far removed from the reality on the ground.)