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If a reform produces unintended consequences of a troubling sort, succeeding generations of reformers will make use of those consequences not to undo the original reform, but rather to call for new action that requires an ever-larger federal government…

All reforms are notorious for their unintended consequences; liberal reforms are noteworthy for something that is less noted, but no less consequential. That would be the response of subsequent reform-minded liberals to the consequences, unintended or otherwise, of the initial reform.

Two laws of sorts seem to be at work here. The first, of course, is the infamous law of unintended consequences. The second might be labeled the law of generational reform.

The idea is this: If a reform produces unintended consequences of a troubling sort, succeeding generations of reformers will make use of those consequences not to undo the original reform, but rather to call for new action that requires an ever-larger federal government.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) could be on its way to becoming a classic example of this phenomenon. The chronology might well go something like this. First, liberal reformers put in place a Rube Goldberg-like contraption that likely will not work. Then they block efforts to reform it. The contraption fails and collapses. Eventually, liberals return to power and enact a single-payer system of the sort that was desired (intended?) all along.

In any case, if the negative consequences of the ACA had been intended—at least in the minds of some of its proponents—the second law still fully applies.

Both laws certainly apply in other instances. Think of the history of Aid for Dependent Children (AFDC). Designed and implemented during the New Deal to help widowed and divorced mothers, it has metastasized into a way of life that discourages family formation in the first place, nay that encourages single and serial motherhood.

But that’s quite okay, we are told. Who needs fathers when the government is on hand to write checks? Besides, the traditional nuclear family is outmoded—or so say many of today’s progressive reformers.

English essayist, G.K. Chesterton, worried about this trend early in the twentieth century. For him, the family was not just a good institution in and of itself, but it was also a defense against the intrusions of the state. As far as he was concerned, “without the family we are helpless before the state.”

Today’s statist-minded reformers may not be out to destroy the family, but when it comes to family matters they see opportunities for the state rather than reasons to worry about the health of the family. With the second of our laws at work, they seem much more inclined to take advantage of the collapse of the nuclear family, rather than to take steps to reverse such a damaging course.

An obvious consequence of this collapse has been the rise in crime among fatherless youth. And since the out-of-wedlock birthrate has been dramatically higher among black women, it is little wonder that young black men are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.

The response of today’s reform-minded liberals to those disproportionate numbers is to launch charges of something called “systemic racism” against our police, courts, and schools—and to call for strong federal action to eradicate this brand of racism.

Did New Deal reformers seventy plus years ago put in place a program to help financially strapped single mothers, while anticipating the day when its results could be used to indict an entire society? No. But with the second law at work, we can see the intentional purposes of current reformers who are out to advance the reach of the state by taking advantage of the long-term unintended consequences of what were once good-hearted reforms.

Systemic racism? If there is such a thing at work in this story, it is the soft racism of those who excuse the chaos that government has contributed to creating, offer money as a band-aid solution, and then refuse to do anything about its true root causes.

Something similar operates with regard to higher education. Once upon a time, the cost of a college education began to creep slowly upward. In response, government aid programs were enacted to cushion those costs and encourage greater numbers of students to attend college. With the money spigot flowing, colleges responded in turn—and in spades. And the result? Tuition began—and continues—to rocket well beyond the rate of inflation. According to Gordon Wadsworth, author of The College Trap, since the mid-1980s college tuition hikes have, on average, exceeded inflation by two and a half times

Once again, the law of unintended consequences was doing its work. And once again, it has given way to the law of generational reform: If the cost of a college education is out of control, and if student loan debt has exceeded credit card debt, as it has, well then, it is high time for the federal government to concoct ways of forgiving past loans and guaranteeing college for everyone.

Bernie Sanders may be old enough to be covered by both laws, but he is far from alone among those making the case for free college. And who knows who will be making the free college case in the years to come. What can be assured is the issue and its advocates won’t be going away anytime soon.

Then there is the charge that a rape culture pervades our college campuses. We are told that one in five young women is the victim of a rape while at college. Maybe an unintended consequence of such a charge will be individual parental decisions to keep their daughters away from such horrible places.

In the meantime, another storyline has long been unfolding. Let’s see . . . we institute coed dormitories. We proceed to promote safe, if inevitably promiscuous, sex. Along the way, we tell young women that they are essentially wired no differently than young men are wired. Finally, we encourage a campus party scene that features guess what, sex and booze.

And then what do you have? Apparently, what you have is a full-blown campus rape crisis, which, in turn, has been an excuse to indict not just the current generation of male undergrads, but an entire country and its alleged history of aggressive male domination.

Is the alleged rape crisis an unintended consequence of a series of reforms devoted to institutionalizing the sexual revolution of recent decades, while turning our colleges into country clubs with benefits? No doubt. But once again let’s look at the highly intentional efforts of those bent on using this “crisis” for larger purposes, specifically the efforts of the Obama administration to expand the powers of an already bloated and intrusive Department of Education.

It’s at least ironic that what began as good-hearted welfare programs (or soft-headed campus reforms) should have spawned such terrible and terribly inflated charges of racism and sexism. But they have. Whether all of this was intended from the outset is, in the end, beside the point. The larger point is the operation of the two laws in tandem.

The first law, having had its often unintended consequences, paves the way for the second law to do its work. And once again, irony intrudes. Those troubling consequences have provided ample opportunities for those who favor an ever more powerful central government, which of course was the intention of those pushing for reform in the first place.

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1 reply to this post
  1. The simple fact is that government, as a concept, does not work. This is true of the repressive governments as well as those that are more libertarian. Certainly, there are things like national defense, that only national governments can do. In all other spheres, responsibility should rest in other hands.

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