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Managing Collateral Negative Consequences

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  1. Arden Rowell says:

    Thanks to David for these thoughtful responses.

    The notion of a cost-blind commitment is a romantic one, evocative of star-crossed lovers and soldiers sacrificing themselves selflessly in the name of honor. But Romeo and Juliet and the Charge of the Light Brigade do not remain classic pieces of art, year after year, because we admire the wisdom of their protagonists. Rather, they are imbedded in our social consciousness because they are tragedies in the deepest sense; because they exhibit the ends to which mankind can bring itself when it leaps forward in the name of a single value, heedless of cost. They are beautiful in part because we imagine the sparkling simplicity of the world of their protagonists when it has narrowed to only one principle: to be with someone we love, even if we must die to do so; or to accept certain death before retreat. But they are beautiful also because, as reflective observers, we see the sadness, loss, and tragedy that results from this sort of unilateral commitment.

    If Romeo and Juliet had reflectively considered tradeoffs, would they have seen that an alternative to suicide would have been optimal, or at least preferable? I would concede that this is not the kind of question typically posed to high school literature classes. Further, I agree with David that there is something deeply uncomfortable about asking this question in this way, and that—at least if asked in isolation—it appears to miss the emotional target of the work by a good few yards.

    But Romeo and Juliet are not modern policymakers intent on identifying and implementing the best possible policies over time in light of resource constraints, diverse interests and political pressures, technological and other uncertainty, and reciprocal risks. Perhaps we can conceive of the ballet of modern regulation as a form of fine art, but we must judge it—at least—by additional metrics beyond those we might use at a more traditional ballet. One of those metrics is, or should be, the extent to which policy-setting manages competing claims, charges, and dangers—that is, the policy’s costs, and the tradeoffs between those costs and other policy impacts. We can call this a consideration of collateral negative consequences, if by that term we mean an analysis of where the policy leaps forward to satisfy a normative commitment, and where (and at what point) it curtails a heedless romantic pursuit of that commitment because it recognizes that the cost has become too grave. But whatever we call it, good policymaking involves asking uncomfortable questions, and one of those—perhaps chief of those—is: just how far should our commitments take us? Asking this question is what keeps our policy from becoming tragedy.

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