Unintended consequences
Unintended consequences

You've (finally!) got your sister's (much bigger!) bedroom after she's gone to uni. Your Mum, in a fever of empty nesting / renesting, has redecorated it. The walls glow, bright and clean, with new paint in your favourite colour.

You take possession of the room. You unwrap a shiny new poster of your favourite band / football team (delete as necessary). You carefully position blobs of Blu-Tack on each corner, and put the poster up over your desk. You step back and take a look. No, not over the desk. It will distract you from your homework. Better by the door. You take the poster down. Disaster! The Blu-Tack has left horrible stains on the nicely painted new wall!

Your plan was to make your new room your own by putting up your favourite poster. It wasn't to leave stains on the wall. Leaving stains on the wall was an unintended consequence of putting up the poster.

There are three ways of dealing with this unintended consequence.

1. Put the poster back up over your desk, thus hiding the stains. The poster isn't where you want it, but it will stop Mum finding out what happened.
2. Fess up to Mum and offer to clean the stains off the wall.
3. Don't use Blu-Tack at all; ask Mum for a pinboard to put your posters on, giving as a reason the stains Blu-Tack will leave. (This requires you to have thought ahead, obviously.)

1 is the worst solution. You might evade the problem temporarily, but in the long term you will be found out, and Mum will then be doubly angry with you, first for leaving stains, and second for not owning up.

2 is the next best; it acknowledges the problem and offers a solution.

3 is the best of all, as it anticipates the problem and prevents it from happening. 3 turns an unintended consequence into an anticipated and mitigated consequence.

What does this have to do with debating?

Arguing for the proposition in a policy debate involves making the case for making a change. Any change has consequences. Some will be intended and beneficial (like having your favourite poster to look at). Some will be unintended and damaging (like stains on the wall).

Let's take an example. You are speaking for the motion 'This house would ban cars from city centres.' In a point of information, the opposition say that this measure would effectively exclude from city centres disabled people who are unable to walk, cycle or take public transport. There are three ways you can respond to this unintended consequence of your proposal.

1. Ignore the point and hope the other side and the judge forget about it.
2. Reply that you will make an exception for disabled people, who will still be allowed to drive in the city centre.
3. Include the exemption for disabled people in your original mechanism.

1 is the worst. You will lose points with the judge first for not having anticipated the problem, and second for failing to deal with it when it arises.

2 is the next best. If you respond quickly and clearly with the exemption idea, you will get credit for prompt and effective rebuttal.

3 is the best. By anticipating negative consequences of your measure and finding solutions to them, you remove a line of attack from the opposition. Their rebuttal of your measure will be weaker, and you will gain credit from the judge for your forward planning.

So, to sum up:

  • If you're the proposition, make sure, in your planning time, that you anticipate any damaging consequences arising from your proposed measure, and mitigate them via your mechanism. Turn unintended consequences into anticipated and mitigated consequences.
  • If you're the opposition, anticipate unwanted consequences arising from the proposed measure and be ready to point them out if the proposition have failed to mitigate them.

By the way, citrus based stain removers are the best for getting Blu-Tack stains off walls.