Perspectives: Unintended consequences of otherwise good laws

OPINION – One of the biggest challenges of our time is dealing with the staggering amount of laws on the books. Hundreds of new laws are added at every level of government, every single year. So it’s not surprising that some bad ones manage to slip through.

Most of these bad laws aren’t particularly evil or oppressive on their face, but they often have unintended consequences that affect us negatively.

Judy Francisco knows this firsthand. She cannot get her drivers license renewed due to stricter ID requirements intended to fight terrorism and illegal immigration.

Few would argue that making it tougher for potential terrorists or illegal aliens to get a Utah drivers license is a bad thing. But the tougher new requirements have created a type of bureaucratic inflexibility that leaves Francisco unable to renew her license because she does not have a state-issued birth certificate.

She was born at home during a severe snowstorm and the doctor who delivered her was considered the town drunk. The lack of a birth certificate did not prevent Francisco from growing up to be a productive citizen. Her certificate of Christening from when she was a baby was an actual legal document that the state considered acceptable for ID purposes. This is clear from the fact that her last Utah driver’s license was issued just 3 years ago.

But without the exact documents that the law now requires, Francisco has been relegated to the status of a nonperson in the eyes of the State of Utah. She is legally hobbled by a law that is supposed to protect society.

If she drives without a license, she can be cited and fined. She will have difficulty opening a bank account; getting a loan; getting a job, or any number of activities that require a state-issued ID. The clerks at the Division of Motor Vehicles Drivers License Division have told Francisco that there’s nothing they can do; the requirements are clear.

A law that was supposed to make it tough for people with evil intent to get a driver’s license is taking a toll on the law abiding as well.

This is a classic example of unintentional results stemming from poorly thought-out or hastily applied laws. But this phenomenon is hardly unique to our day and age.

A 19th Century French economist named Frederic Bastiat warned of the dangers of unintended consequences in his classic essay “That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen.” He taught that, “in the department of economy, an act, a habit, an institution, a law, gives birth not only to an effect, but to a series of effects. Of these effects, the first only is immediate; it manifests itself simultaneously with its cause – it is seen. The others unfold in succession – they are not seen: it is well for us, if they are foreseen.”

If we focus only on the visible effects of a proposed policy, we may not recognize the invisible effects until the harm is done. This is whether it is applied to economics, public works, fighting wars, taxes, or a host of other policies. The difference between wise and unwise laws is that the wise laws take into consideration not only the immediate, visible benefit, but also all those who might be affected negatively. Few lawmakers exercise this type of foresight.

In the case of Francisco, we see that a poorly considered law can prove to be a major inconvenience. There’s also another lesson for those who are paying attention. Francisco’s experience demonstrates the risk of allowing a person’s identity to become a state-granted privilege. When a person fails to secure state approval of their identity, even through no fault of their own, their ability to live a productive life is seriously impeded. To get a taste of what this is like on a small scale, simply try cashing a check without a state ID.

When identity becomes subject to government approval, government tends to consider the people as little more than a commodity to be managed.

Any time a new law or policy is proposed, we must be willing to think beyond the expected immediate and intended consequences. We seldom consider the unintended consequences unless we’re the ones affected.

Not much from the 1840s is still considered useful in our time. But Bastiat’s insights remain perfectly relevant.

Bryan Hyde is a news commentator and co-host of the Perspectives morning show on Fox News 1450 AM 93.1 FM. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.

Email: bryanh@stgnews.com

Twitter: @youcancallmebry

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2013, all rights reserved.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!

1 Comment

  • Ron January 31, 2013 at 7:22 pm

    I don’t often agree with you, but this essay is essay is right on the money, IMHO.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.