Today, the world is trying to comprehend why a commercial pilot would intentionally fly an airplane into the side of a mountain. Undoubtedly, there will be suggestions for preventing such tragedies in the future. Ironically, it appears this horrific occurrence at least partially resulted from previous efforts to make air travel safer. What can we learn from this?
Many years ago, an old friend in the higher education world told me about a library at a large urban college that realized that significant numbers of books were missing from the collection every year. Students would check them out and lose them or just not return them. Other books would disappear without a trace and were assumed to be stolen. The chief librarian reported over two hundred books per year on average would be lost, just from those that were stolen. In order to put an end to this unacceptable circumstance, extra security personnel were hired, and cameras and other technology were installed to catch the thieves. The outcome was amazing as they reduced the number of lost or stolen books by nearly 50 percent, a savings of almost ten thousand dollars in the first year alone. They were proud of their success, until the college budget officer calculated the cost of their solution. It was obvious the bean counter and the librarian had different priorities.
The story is illustrative of the mistakes we make when we don’t carefully consider the consequences of our good intentions. In other words, we don’t understand or agree upon our goals, and we fail to do a risk/benefit analysis. In this case, the librarian wanted to stop book theft, while the budget administrator wanted to reduce costs, both worthy goals, but neither were achieved. An optimal solution would have eliminated the theft of books while also reducing the operating cost of the library.
In an airplane, locking the cabin door does keep people with bad intentions from gaining access. Unfortunately, it also stops the well-intentioned from preventing tragedies.
Sometimes we are guilty of knee-jerk reactions to our daily frustrations, grabbing onto the first solution that comes along, or just doing something and hoping for the best. In my experience, legislative bodies, bureaucracies, and well-meaning activists are most often guilty of this, with unfortunate outcomes for the rest of us.
Congress seeks compromise solutions to seemingly important problems. Then they describe their actions in ways that benefit them politically, ignoring the unintended consequences.
The EPA, the FDA, and the FCC, among many others, introduce regulations that appear to solve or prevent certain problems, but in time they commonly make matters worse and more expensive.
Highly motivated activists often suffer from mass delusions, fervently committing to their causes. The worst offenders try to silence the opposition by various tactics including character assassination or worse. They give little consideration to the logic of their intentions.
How safe can we make air travel? How clean can we make our air? What global climate do we want to make? Can we make the Internet better through regulation by the government? Are more people benefiting from affordable health care? Can we deport 10 million illegal immigrants? What energy sources make sense for modern life on our blue planet?
We are inundated with examples where the cure is worse than the malady. Sometimes, we cure the uninfected while killing the victim. We just shake our heads and go on with our lives. Our folly is self-correcting after all. Even if the correction is not in the best interest of humanity. Oh! Why else would we act?