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Saving Endangered Species

Have you ever had an idea that you thought was good, but turned out bad? It happens to everyone. Sometimes when we make a plan, we can’t predict what all the consequences will be. These unseen effects are known by economists as “unintended consequences.”

Don Boudreaux examines a major piece of legislation – the Endangered Species Act – and argues that we should judge it based on its results, not its intentions. The intention of the law is to preserve endangered species, a seemingly noble cause. As it turns out, the law severely restricts what property owners can do with land inhabited by endangered species. This in turn reduces the value of that land. As a result, the act gives landowners good reasons to quietly kill protected species they encounter on their land. This phenomenon is known as “shoot, shovel, and shut up.”

Giving landowners the incentive to kill animals clearly wasn’t the goal of the Endangered Species Act. It is an unintended, unforeseen consequence. Boudreaux encourages us to judge a policy not by its stated goals, but by its actual effects.

Saving Endangered Species

When I teach Econ 101 I tell my students on the first day “intentions are not results.” The intentions behind the policy will not necessarily determine what the results of that policy are. Econ was taught a lot about unintended consequences and it is important to understand what we mean.

One example of the unintended consequence that is exactly the opposite of the intention comes from the endangered species act. The intention of that act is to enable endangered species to flourish. When consequence in many cases is to cause the endangered species to be killed off more quickly than otherwise, if you are a land owner and you find an endangered species on your property you know that the environmental protection agency will as a result of that finding impose restrictions on your land one consequence of those restrictions is it reduces the value of your land.

What you can do with it, the price you can sell it for. So what a lot land owners do when they find what they think to be endangered species on their property is they kill the species and they shut up about its – shovel and shut up. Kill the species shovel to bury and say nothing about it. Now clearly that is not the goal of the endangered species act.

The take home lesson from this is that you judge a policy not by its stated goals; it is easy to state good goals. You judge a policy by the incentives that the policy will likely give to the people that it affects whether or not you believe in big government, tiny government, or medium size governments. It is difficult in many cases to trace out how the incentives will have real world effects, but that difficulty does not excuse us from the task of pursuing it. We can’t just simply say, “Oh, the intentions of the policy makers are good therefore we can be assured that the results will be good.” That is cheating you just can’t do that. That is very bad public policy.

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