Saving Endangered Species: Good Intentions But Bad Result
Some government regulations that are made with good intentions still lead to bad results. The Endangered Species Act is a good example of such a law. In this video, economics professor Don Boudreaux examines the Endangered Species Act, and uses it to explain how policymakers' good intentions sometimes go awry. While the law intends to preserve threatened animals, it actually has the effect of giving landowners strong reasons to kill any endangered species they find on their property. This phenomenon is known as "shoot, shovel, and shut up." Boudreaux implores us not to judge a policy by its intentions, but by its results. We can't assume a policy will be good just because the intentions of the policymakers are good.
(see video at the bottom of transcript)
Donald J. Boudreaux:
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. Economists thought 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 it. It's called shoot and shovel and shut up. Kill the species, shovel to bury it, 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 that 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.