Has anyone written a study of the concept of unintended consequences? The concept is very familiar, of course, but I'm curious when it emerged (did the ancient Greeks have it, for example?); how people distinguish between consequences that are unintended because they were unknowable or very difficult to foresee, versus ones that are unintended because, well, they just weren't an actor intended.

One thread in the debate over the financial crisis has been about this point, or a version of it– was the collapse of the housing and capital markets a foreseeable event, or was it something that even brilliant people could never have possibly anticipated? The evidence now strongly suggests that it was predictable (look at the fact that some people made a lot of money shorting the market), and that the success that people enjoyed during the bubble made it harder for them to believe that the good times could end.

A more chilling example of an unintended consequence comes in an essay 2008 by German author Eckhard Fuhr, translated and republished in the very good site Sign and Sight. In a review of a new series of volumes documenting the origins of the Holocaust, he writes:

The decision [by German Jews] to go or to stay also depended not least on people's experiences in their immediate surroundings. "Seen from the point of view of Auschwitz," the editors write in their introduction, "a tragic insight opens up: the more openly anti-Semitic the 'Ayran' neighbours, customers, and co-workers were at the beginning of Nazi rule, the faster the victims were able to take the decision to flee and ultimately save their lives. If their Christian acquaintances and friends were friendly and helpful, the persecuted were more likely to opt to stay, thus cutting their chances of survival dramatically."

This is about as perfect an example of an unintended consequence as I think one could come up with– not because it suggests an easy solution– e.g., well-meaning Christian Germans should have seen the Holocaust coming and pushed their Jewish friends to get out while they could– but because its two sentences capture all the difficulty and ambiguity of situations in which genuine unintended consequences flourish.

Actually, as I think about it, there's a really good article to be written about how we use the term "unintended consequences," and what it tells us about the ordinary ways we think about risk, uncertainty, and the future. The term is incredibly widespread– a Google Scholar search returns more than 76,000 hits– so there's no lack of material to work with.

Just thinking aloud… If it's possible to identify where the phrase comes from, you could then do a Raymond Williams Keywords-like analysis of its history. You could then focus more specifically on a few contexts in which the term appears, like regulation, technology, and finance, to get a more precise sense of how intelligent people invoke it– when it seems appropriate, and what it means when it's used. Third, you could dive more deeply into the meaning of "unintended," and where the unintentionality (to coin a phrase comes from)– from ourselves, from the world, our models of the world, etc. (This would have the benefit of making it harder to hide behind the term.) Finally, you would talk about what kinds of unintended consequences can be mitigated.