NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


January 23, 2008

With a government that is regularly begged for relief -- these days, from mortgage woes, health care costs and tax burdens -- and with every presidential hopeful making daily promises to address these woes, it might be worth encouraging the winning candidate to think twice before rushing off to do good, say Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, authors of the book "Freakonomics."

That is because many promises, or in this case, laws, can have unintended consequences.  For example:

  • When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1992, it led to a sharp drop in the employment of disabled workers.
  • Employers, concerned that they wouldn't be able to discipline or fire disabled workers who happened to be incompetent, apparently avoided hiring them in the first place.


  • Under the ADA, when a deaf patient sees a physician, for example, he can choose the mode of interpretation, at the physician's expense.
  • Since receiving treatment often entails more than one doctor visit, expenses mount on physicians to the point where they will no longer take patients covered under the ADA.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is another example:

  • Economists Dean Lueck and Jeffrey Michael wanted to gauge the ESA's effect on the red-cockaded woodpecker, a protected bird that nests in old-growth pine trees in eastern North Carolina.
  • By examining timber harvest activity of privately owned forest plots, Lueck and Michael found that when a landowner felt that his property was turning into the sort of habitat that might attract a nesting pair of woodpeckers, he rushed in to cut down the trees.

Source: Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, "Unintended Consequences," New York Times Magazine, January 20, 2008.

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