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Newton And The Law Of Unintended Consequences

“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”
Newton’s Third Law of Physics

“We live in a Newtonian world of Einsteinium physics ruled by Frankenstein logic.”
David Russell


Sir Isaac Newton who lived during the seventeenth century is still considered by most to be one of, if not the, most influential scientists of all times. His laws on motion have been proven time and again and are the basis for the development of everything from flight to calculus. His third law of motion, quoted above, is a fundamental principle of physics – and, as it turns out, of life.

We live in a point of time where we are, more than ever before, victims of the Law of Unintended Consequences; an ongoing example of Newwton’s Third Law in action.  Decisions are being made and policies proposed and implemented that never seem to take into consideration the consequences beyond the band aid fix to a particular issue.

Consider, for example, the latest brouhaha over the importing of foreign workers into Canada. The Conservative Government revised the law a year ago ostensibly to help Canadian business, in particular small business, find employees for positions that Canadians seemed unwilling to fill. Whether or not that’s true, it didn’t work out very well.

Big business took advantage of the reductions in foreign worker restrictions to fill jobs with cheaper foreign labour. That did take jobs from Canadians which forced the government to reverse itself this past week and reinstate the provisions it had removed.

The government simply hadn’t stopped to consider all possible consequences before making the changes last year. It saw an issue and a quick fix and immediately both Newton’s Third Law and the Law of Unintended Consequences took over. They have compounded the mistake by reacting to the controversy rather than responding with some critical analysis and there is no question that new unintended consequences are waiting around the corner on this issue.

It isn’t the first time that government has acted without looking at the bigger picture – it’s almost part of government’s DNA to avoid consideration of the long-term consequences of its actions.

In the 90s, the Liberal Government raised the taxes on cigarettes in the belief that it would reduce smoking. While the objective may have been laudable, the consequence was a marked increase in cigarette smuggling which increased crime and, therefore, the cost to law enforcement and the judicial system without having much impact on cigarette use. The result was that the same government that raised the tax on cigarettes was forced to reduce it a few years later and look for a better solution.

The issue wasn’t whether or not government should be discouraging cigarette smoking, the issue was what are the best and most effective methods to achieve that without creating new problems somewhere else?

Newton was right. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction and because we don’t consider all of the possible forces that can come into play on an issue, we are ill-prepared for many of the consequences of the decisions we take as nations,  as communities and even as individuals.

There is a push on in my city to open a safe-injection site for heroin and crack addicts. I don’t doubt the sincere intentions of many of those who are behind the initiative. They are, for the most part, driven by a desire to help addicts and to protect the community from diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C. Some simply want to reduce the amount of used drug paraphernalia like needles that are too often found on our streets and in neighbourhood back yards in the city’s core.

But there is more to this issue than infectious disease control and the nuisance hazard of used needles lying around.

Illegal drugs are supplied by criminals, typically by gangs and anything which enables safe use of illegal drugs enables that criminal enterprise. We have already seen gang shootings over territory, robbery and theft caused by addicts looking for money to feed their habit and despite the Safe Needle Program which has distributed more than 1 million needles to addicts; we’ve seen increased sharing of dirty needles which spread infectious and potentially fatal disease.

Enabling addicts doesn’t help them either. Put bluntly, street drugs destroy lives and not only the lives of the user. Safe-injection sites are basically a sign that society has given up on the individual and is providing a convenient place for them to come and slowly kill themselves by allowing them to indulge their addiction. It legitimizes the wasting of human life and for some, the use of illegal drugs.

Neighbourhoods are affected negatively, small business near safe-injection sites suffers and respect for our laws is undermined. It is the opposite but equal reaction to the original action taken.

We would be better served to understand that fixing one problem only to create a dozen others isn’t really much of a solution.

If the issue is that addiction leads to sharing of needles which leads to increased diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C, I would suggest that we put as much money as possible into rehabilitation and treatment programs rather than enabling the behaviour that is causing the problem in the first place. It seems to me that might be a more positive approach to trying to rebuild broken lives rather than simply reinforcing what is breaking those lives down.

It is easy to blame government for much of this because government typically takes the shortest route possible to resolution of an issue; seldom thinking much farther than the next election. But it isn’t restricted to government. We are all guilty of it to some extent or another. We rush to support what we think might resolve an issue without considering the consequences that might ensue from that decision.

Gun control is one of those issues.

I have no problem with reasonable regulation being placed on gun ownership but the problem we face in society is crime, not gun ownership and most gun crime is committed by criminals using illegally obtained firearms. Placing restrictions, particularly the somewhat innocuous regulations recently proposed and rejected by the American Senate does nothing to reduce gun crime. It is a significant amount of public debate and acrimony for no good purpose.

We can pretend otherwise and delude ourselves into believing that there are simplistic solutions to complex issues but it is an unfortunate illusion embraced by too many. We don’t consider the long-term consequences of public policy or even the support we throw to politicians, political parties and major issues.

Most of us want the same basic things: good jobs, a clean environment, safer communities with reduced crime, lower taxes and more efficient government but because we tend to react rather than respond to proposals to achieving those things there is no room for listening to or considering the opinions and ideas of others with whom we disagree.

We become so focused on winning the argument and implementing a quick solution that we lose sight of the original problem and only end up creating new unintended consequences which themselves have to be addressed.

Abortion became a women’s issue rather than a human issue. I was around when the original argument was put forward and one of the primary kicks against legalizing abortion was that it would become a form of birth control, a charge vehemently denied by pro-choice supporters.

As it turns out, abortion has not only become an acceptable form of birth control, it is also being used to cull the species with many using it as a means to reject the birth of children which may have potential health issues or simply based on their gender. An alarming number of pregnancies are being terminated for no other reason than because the baby is female which I don’t believe was ever the intent of those who supported abortion rights and most that do today.

Now we are being forced to deal with the consequence of post-birth abortion and if even half of the evidence presented so far in the Gosnell trial in the United States is true, we have moved from trying to decide when life begins to not caring when it begins and simply terminating it at our convenience.

I am not anti-abortion but we entered into it without much thought beyond a woman’s right to choose and because we refuse to face and consider all of the opposite consequences to our decision, Canada has become one of the few nations in the world with no abortion law guidelines whatsoever.

That has led to some in some jurisdictions being charged with homicide when the assault of a pregnant woman causes the death of her unborn baby; an unequal application of law based on an undefined concept of what is and is not life.

Organ donation and euthanasia are also serious issues that have created unintended consequences. I believe that organ donation is an important and necessary means to help others and support and encourage it. I also accept that ultimately, the individual should have final determination on whether or not to continue their life or to end it, especially when facing a long-term, fatal and painful illness.

But we saw the unintended consequence of those two programs come together recently in England when doctors declared a young man brain dead and wanted to harvest his organs immediately. His father refused permission and fortunately for his son who recovered and is quite alive today. The unintended consequence of organ donation has been snap judgments, sometimes incorrect judgments, about the probability of a patient’s recovery. A market for organs has been created which has seen people kidnapped and an internal organ stolen and led even one young man to sell one of his kidneys to raise money to buy the latest iPhone.

I believe organ donation is an essential component in health care and is to be encouraged but when it first ramped up, we didn’t really stop to consider all of the possible consequences of that program and put the proper safeguards in place. We are playing catch up now.

And that ultimately is the problem with the way we approach things today. We are constantly in a state of catch up after extensive periods of acrimony and division on key issues. We should be united. Political ideology is no excuse for being stupid and for making careless and poorly thought through decisions.  Neither is political or social expediency.

There is nothing to be feared from considering all of the possible consequences that flow from the decisions we want to make and the social policies we are considering. We would be better served to fear the fact that we have not thought something through sufficiently to minimize, if not prevent, the Law of Unintended Consequences creating more issues than we originally set out to overcome.

We are experimenting with real lives when we avoid examining all possible outcomes before making a decision and that has a direct impact on all of us.  Every life has value and we all have a right to expect better not only from government but from each other.


Precious Little Insight At Insite


Safe-Injection Sites


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  • nelson windsor

    The thing is that nobody really wants to admit is that the correlation between crime in aboriginal/black communities, the abuse of drugs +alcohol, and high unemployment rates. – The stats don’t lie. Is it a racist assumption? No it’s not… because those same factors will erode any society that gets caught up in that cycle.

    • MaggiesBear

      Nothing exemplifies better than some reserves just what an abject failure our approach to social programs has been. It perpetuates poverty rather than lifting people up to live productive lives.

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