There are ten vital foundational lessons that should be taught in any introductory course on economics, says Don Boudreaux, a professor of economics at George Mason University. The first three lessons on his list are,
(1) [T]he world is full of both desirable and undesirable unintended consequences – consequences that are largely invisible but that even a course in ‘mere’ principles of economics gives us great vision that enables us to “see,” (2) intentions are not results; (3) our world is unavoidably one of trade-offs and not “solutions,” …
While these lessons can be easily understood in theory, applying them to the real world can often be surprisingly difficult. Consider, for instance, the issue of providing humanitarian relief, such as emergency food assistance, in active conflict zones. As Cullen Hendrix notes, “there is virtually unanimous consensus and a body of international law that commits the international community to address humanitarian disasters with emergency food aid.” Yet there are, he notes, unintended consequences to such relief efforts:
But what if this food aid—and humanitarian intervention more generally—prolongs the very conflicts whose effects it seeks to mitigate? Scholars have pointed to humanitarian assistance, particularly in irregular conflicts, as engendering perverse incentives for armed actors, who capture and divert humanitarian assistance in order to continue to fund their war aims. The logic of the argument is relatively straightforward. First, because emergency food shipments to conflict zones are somewhat fungible (i.e., they can be captured and resold or consumed by armed actors), they constitute an often-unintended form of material support for rebels: Give a person a fish and s/he eats for a day. Give a person a fish in a conflict zone and a warlord steals it, re-sells it, and buys a few more Kalashnikovs and Hilux. Second, the provision of food and basic social services by the international community, even if imperfect, releases pressure on both the government and the rebels to negotiate a settlement: Any move that makes a hurting stalemate more tolerable reduces incentives to end it. Third, humanitarian interventions that address basic needs may free up more time for engaging in politics and resisting governments and their allies: If an army marches on its stomach, dissidents probably organize on theirs. No wonder that active food denial has been a part of counterinsurgency operations for centuries.
The effect of humanitarian aid on conflicts is a prime example of the three economic lessons cited above. Our intention may be to help the victims the conflict yet the results could be that our “help” merely multiplies their suffering. Our moral convictions lead us to think we can provide a “solution” to an intractable problem and instead we discover and “undesirable unintended consequence.”
This doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t attempt to relieve such suffering. “Whatever the implications for conflict dynamics and imperfections in delivery, emergency food assistance is still the ethical thing to do,” says Cullen. “The deeper question is how to target it in ways that . . . not only address the crisis of the day but can contribute to lasting peace in the future.”
What this means in practice is that we can’t simply assume that “doing something” is sufficient to meet our moral duties. We have to consider the relevant trade-offs and potential unintended consequences and attempt to design a program that will have the effects we intend. In other words, we should use economic thinking not as a way to avoid our moral duties but to improve our chances of doing the good we seek.