I recently read that Pope Gregory IX (that guy who established the Inquisition—love him) had a serious hatred of cats. Especially black ones, which he linked to devil worship. I’m sure a lot of folks can relate to hating cats, including my highly allergic husband, but most of those people can’t do what Gregory did: he issued a papal bull declaring cats a tool of the devil and inspired people all over Europe to go out and kill them.
Europe’s cat population then diminished significantly, beginning in the 1230s. (I don’t have numbers for you; Gallup Cat had not yet begun polling the feline population.) But no one predicted the eventual fallout of the Great Cat Massacre. In the absence of cats, Europe’s rat population exploded, which opened the door for the bubonic plague a century later. Now that was a tool of the devil. At least one-third of the human population of Europe died of this rat-spread disease, leading to widespread political instability and warfare.
Talk about unintended consequences. Sometimes our actions to solve one problem create others that are far more serious, even dangerous.
A classic example from our own U.S. history is that wonderful piece of legislation called the G.I. Bill. After World War II, this miraculous law helped to reward veterans, stabilize the middle class with its emphasis on paying for soldiers’ educations, and jump-start the U.S. construction industry. It’s one of the coolest pieces of federal legislation of the twentieth century.
Because the years immediately before the war featured the worst economic depression the country had ever known, legislators were understandably focused on their top postwar priority of “it’s the economy, stupid.” One of the oft-used provisions of the GI Bill gave soldiers money to buy new houses with no down payment and very low interest.
The operative word there is “new.” As in, new construction. As in, the money could not typically be used to buy a pre-existing house in an established neighborhood (Gallagher, p. 121).
This had the intended effect of kickstarting the construction boom, but it also resulted in Levittown and White Flight. The mostly white vets who qualified for the GI Bill left American cities in droves for the suburbs. With them came the rise of many problems we still have not resolved: the decline of public schools in urban areas, the dismantling of public transportation systems, the ghettoization of people of color in America’s cities. And if you extrapolate still further, even some of America’s current obesity epidemic can be dated back to this suburban exodus, when we created oases with plenty of cars but few sidewalks.
All of this ruminating on unintended consequences makes me realize three things:
1) I’m glad I’m not the pope.
2) I’m glad I’m not a politician.
3) I need to try harder to anticipate consequences.
This year in the Primary (the Mormon Sunday School where I get to work with kids), our theme is “Choose the Right.” Choosing the right is big in Mormonism—cultivating virtue and avoiding sin. Which is all very well, but in our first Sunday of the year, the curriculum encouraged teachers to put a diagram on the board to show that when we exercise our agency (free will) to choose the right, we will be happy; when we choose otherwise, we will be miserable.
It won’t be long before the kids learn that in real life it’s rarely that simple.
We make the best decisions we can with the limited knowledge we have in the time that we are given. Perhaps our ethic should be to ask which action is the most loving. Which choice before us demonstrates the most love?
With this as a litmus test, the G.I. bill probably would still have happened—there will always be unintended negative consequences—but those cats would have been alive and well and killing their little rodent friends.
The black cat image is used with permission of Shutterstock.com.