Unintended Consequences

Great Moments in Unintended Consequences: Transcontinental Railroad, Cash for Ash, Cobra Problem (Vol. 5)

Good intentions, bad results.


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Here are even more of Reason's "great moments in unintended consequences"—stories of when something that sounds like a terrific idea goes horribly wrong. Watch the whole series here.

Part 1: The Transcontinental Tango

The year: 1862.

The problem: There's no railroad connecting coastal elites!

The solution: Pay rail companies for each mile of track laid for a brand new transcontinental railroad.

Sounds like a great idea, with the best of intentions. What could possibly go wrong?

While Congress has never been great at keeping an eye on spending, it's even worse at it during a Civil War. With no one looking, the Union Pacific unnecessarily lengthened the route, adding miles of track and pocketing almost half a million dollars.

After two and a half years of construction, the Union Pacific laid track all the way from Omaha to…40 miles outside of Omaha.

I choo-choo-choose to screw taxpayers.

Part 2: Burning Cash

The year: 2012.

The problem: An over-reliance on fossil fuels in Northern Ireland.

The solution: A subsidy for heat generated from renewable sources.

Sounds like a great idea, with the best of intentions. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, it turns out the rate paid by the subsidy was greater than the cost of the fuel being used—so the more wood pellets you burned, the greater your profit. Voila: the "Cash for Ash" program, with farmers heating empty buildings just to collect a paycheck.

In the fallout, Northern Ireland's first minister refused to stand aside during any inquiry, the deputy first minister resigned in protest, the Northern Ireland Assembly dissolved, and the executive branch collapsed for almost three full years.

Not to mention a whole lot of taxpayer dollars up in smoke.

Part 3. All right, fine. We'll do the cobra thing

The year: Uhhh…some time in the 19th century? Maybe? Not sure. Might not even be true. Who knows?

The problem: The English colonial city of Delhi is infested with venomous cobras.

The solution: Give money to anyone who brings in a dead cobra.

Sounds like a great idea, with the best of intentions. What could possibly go wrong?

It didn't take long for folks to realize that the bounty paid for a dead cobra was greater than the cost of raising a cobra. Once city officials got wind of lucrative snake breeding farms, they repealed the bounty—leading cobra farmers to release their now worthless snakes into the wild. Net result: more cobras than ever, a lot of wasted cash, and a book by a German guy with a title that sounds like it's straight out of G.I. Joe.

While the veracity of the cobra story is hard to pin down, a similar story was documented in Hanoi under French colonial rule—only this time the issue was rats, with a bounty paid for every rat tail brought to the authorities. It wasn't long before officials began to notice rats without tails, having been set free by rat catchers with a basic understanding of economics.

But don't worry, we learned our lesson and it never happened ag—

In Fort Benning, Georgia, where the feral pig population was out of control, the bounty—for some forehead slapping reason—was pig tails, which once again…blah, blah, blah…more pigs.

They eventually discontinued the bounty, so don't worry, everything is swine now.

Great moments in unintended consequences. Good intentions, bad results.

Written and produced by Meredith and Austin Bragg; narrated by Austin Bragg.