[OUTLOOK]When good intentions go awry

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[OUTLOOK]When good intentions go awry

“Oh, no! How could this happen?” Many politicians and government authorities may be letting out such cries of surprise these days.
As policies begun with good intentions have led to consequences that contradict the original purpose, and as various other unanticipated developments crop up here and there, the confusion has built to the point where consequences cannot be predicted at all. Some representative examples of these unexpected developments, which have further complicated our society’s fundamental problems, are as follows.
The policy the government implemented to control the escalation in housing prices has actually inflated the real estate bubble, precisely the opposite of what it was designed to do. The education reforms that were meant to help the public schools and reduce the costs of private education have aggravated the problems with the country’s education system and instigated a sense of division between the classes.
The economic policy that was designed to mitigate social inequality has resulted in a situation that puts those in the low-income brackets at further disadvantage. The plan to build an administrative city, which was meant to ease the imbalance between regions of the country, has made those conflicts worse and disturbed the real estate market, making it clear that the plan has done nothing for the cause of balanced development.
Those examples are probably not the only ones; a substantial number of large-scale reforms and policies may have gone adrift without achieving the intended results.
In sociology, these phenomena are known as unintended consequences. The term is used to describe a policy decision’s social effects that were not originally intended, or indeed even anticipated. They illustrate that human society, unlike a machine, cannot always be counted on to do what is expected.
We should pay particular heed to the phenomenon known as self-defeating predictions. In forming a plan, policymakers may announce in advance what they intend to achieve. The danger here is that there might be those who will attempt to reverse these predictions.
Since society has many competing interests and values, there will always be those in society who object to a particular kind of change. Advance announcements of what a policymaker expects to achieve can therefore lead to the thwarting of those very goals.
This is why those who pursue change should be careful and prudent in preparing for it.
The most dangerous factor is ideological rigidity. If policymakers design their plans according to a particular doctrine or ideology, there are very likely to be unintended consequences. Because ideologies present rosy pictures of a future society, they can be very attractive and appealing to certain interest groups, but the odds of those pictures being realized are very low.
After ideological rigidity, perhaps the biggest danger is short-sightedness. Generally speaking, policies designed to bring about social change do not do so in the short term. If policymakers pursue their goals with immediate gains and visible achievements in mind, without taking into account the variety of obstacles that are likely to emerge in the long run, unintended consequences are likely to come up.
But the most important issue to be considered is whether or not the new policy will benefit society as a whole.
The essential question for national organizations that make important decisions and implement policies that directly affect the lives of everyone is this one: “For whom is the policy made?”
If they are kidding themselves that their policy is beneficial for the development of the entire society, when what they are really doing is promoting the interests of certain factions, regions or classes. Or, for that matter, if they say publicly that they are trying to improve the lives of everyone, when in fact they never had any real intention of doing so,then they should know that unanticipated consequences are bound to ensue. The dynamics of social change are not so simple.

* The writer is a visiting professor at KDI School of Public Policy and Management and member of the National Academy of Sciences.

by Kim Kyong-dong
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