Weighing consequences

Newton’s third law states that any action has an equal and opposite reaction. This is as true in the hard sciences as it is in public policy. Each decision has a consequence, and any solution to a problem will introduce new problems. “What do you give up to gain?” That was a phrase my mentor and instructor David Maglio used often. To compound the problem of weighing consequences, we often don’t have a full set of data, and cannot foresee the sacrifices or other potentially unanticipated aspects of a policy until it is too late.

Some examples from history

Vietnam War

In Col. James McDonough’s (ret.) book “Platoon Leader”, he offers us the example of a US Army policy during the Vietnam War to rotate Lieutenants out of their direct troop leading command after 6 months in the field, even though their men stayed on for 12 months. The goal initially was to allow more young officers a taste of combat during what was anticipated to be a short war, and to spread around the opportunity to gain valuable leadership experience.

The drawback as you can imagine, was that new lieutenants shuffled in and out of combat units where the men had more experience than their leaders. This led to gross inconsistency of leadership style, expectations, and effectiveness of those combat units. How many US soldiers died battle because they were led by officers who had no experience in the rigors of war? This is an example of the cost of a well meaning policy.


If we look to history, we can see that outlawing alcohol lead to the widespread illegal liquor trafficking industry, and spike in organized crime. This in turn lead to rises in violent crime, murders, government corruption, and a loss of tax revenue.

When our nation went to war on illicit drugs, we quickly overloaded our prison systems and law enforcement resources with non-violent offenders, which in turn lead to fewer resources to fight “real” crimes, and a higher cost to taxpayers to pay for government spending on the corrections industry.

American Revolution

Prior to and leading up to the American Revolution, British parliament sought to punish the colonies for their insolence during the Boston Tea Party by instituting laws that denied Massachusetts colonists self governance. British officials had gambled that by making an example out of one colony, order would be restored and the other colonies would fall back into line. As history has it, this plan backfired and angered american colonists to the point of sparking a war.


In each of these examples, leaders instituted well meaning decisions hoping to generally bring benefit, but in fact benefited few members of society at the detriment of the vast majority.

Consequences of Today’s Proposed Gun Laws

In context of the national gun rights debate, for one side to fervently claim that their position is correct is to show ignorance for the complex balance and multitude of factors that form reality. For example, no one wishes for criminals and crazies to have access to immensely powerful firearms. Specifically, after the Parkland Florida shooting many have cried for greater police powers to seize the firearms from people suspected of being a danger to themselves and others. At face value this rhetoric makes sense, until you consider that if police can violate one’s freedoms without due process on a suspicion or complaint, how do the people maintain accountability from the police to not unjustly violate the rights of the innocent?

If we are to increase law enforcement powers to seize firearms from individuals deemed to be unstable, what prevents the police from abusing their “discretion” to remove firearms from law abiding citizens?

If we institute a broad “assault style weapons” ban, how do we ensure that the law actually affects a criminal’s access to weapons rather than just denying the freedoms of the majority?

If we raise the minimum age to purchase firearms to 21, what effect will it have on the population four or five generations from now? Will it actually deter crime? If so, how much?

What do you