“You Meant It for Evil”: The Gift of Unintended Consequences

The Conservative Disposition and God’s Unstoppable Plan

David Clay / 6.29.20

Thankful for this post by David Clay:

In his 1956 essay, “On Being Conservative,” British philosopher Michael Oakeshott speaks not so much of a conservative ideology but rather of a conservative disposition, which is that of preserving what is good about one’s present circumstances in the face of inevitable change. According to Oakeshott, to be conservative is not to hold this or that doctrine. It is rather

to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to Utopian bliss.

Conservatives need not have any illusions about the defects plaguing their societies or their own personal lives. By definition, however, they pay more attention to what could be lost rather than what could be gained. Conservatives are therefore most open to “innovation” when “the projected change is most likely to be limited to what is intended and least likely to be corrupted by undesired and unmanageable consequences.”

Oakeshott here alludes to the famous “law of unintended consequences,” an idea that usually shows up in economics but has broad application elsewhere. The more complex a system becomes, the more likely that changes will produce outcomes the innovators hadn’t banked on. A profound respect for this “law” therefore lies at the heart of the conservative disposition, particularly in the realm of politics.

Not that political conservatives are always good at paying attention to it: In 2002, President George W. Bush imposed tariffs on cheap foreign steel imports in order to protect domestic production; the resulting higher steel prices ended up costing 200,000 Americans their jobs.

Some applications of this law in the realm of public policy are much less heavy. The British colonial government in Delhi, India, once put a bounty on cobras in order to cut back on the overpopulation of those deadly snakes. Government officials were surprised to discover that people had responded by raising and harvesting cobras in their own homes. A 1968 Vermont law banning billboards was intended to protect the state’s scenic views. Instead, it incentivized businesses to get “creative” with roadside advertising: One auto dealership, for instance, commissioned a 12-foot, 16-ton gorilla sculpture holding a real Volkswagen Beetle aloft.

The law of unintended consequences operates at the level of our individual experience as well. For the oldest child, at least, earning one’s driver’s license almost immediately results in assuming the role as family chauffeur. Resolutions to become better informed about current events (or even world history, for that matter) can have a detrimental effect on one’s mental health. Selling that insufferable younger brother into slavery might just end up with him holding your fate in his hands.

That last example, however, has a further twist. “You meant it for evil,” Joseph tells his terrified brothers, who have just discovered the Egyptian prime minister’s true identity, “but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:20).

Joseph may as well be speaking of another event that occurred thousands of years later. A Roman provincial governor presiding over occupied territory bowed to pressure from some of the locals and ordered the execution of a charismatic itinerant rabbi from up north. This governor knew him to be harmless (albeit probably crazy), but he had somehow drawn the ire of some influential people. The governor didn’t feel great about himself for doing so, but he had no intention of explaining a full-scale riot to the emperor. It was an unpleasant but routine bit of imperial realpolitik. And it had the (very) unintended consequence of the world’s salvation. “He suffered under Pontius Pilate,” says the oldest creed of the church, and Christ’s sufferings–born of jealousy, spite, cynicism and political expediency–have taken away the sins of the world.

The law of unintended consequences is thus cause for both humility and hope. As thoughtful people, we acknowledge that our best-intentioned public and personal projects will likely have mixed results, some of which the wisest of us could not have envisioned. As Christians, we further acknowledge–and rejoice–that the final result of all human and divine action is the good of those whom God has called.

Stated a bit differently, we are, by all accounts, not in control. The complexity of the world complicates and sometimes mocks our efforts to improve our society and even our own selves. By the Christian account, however, we do not need to be in control. We are called to cultivate prudence, certainly, but our value doesn’t hinge on whether we can implement our five-year plans. The plan that does determine our value has already succeeded, regardless of our best (and worst) intentions.