The cobra effect

Brain droppings


by Peter Johnson

‘Why would anyone heat an empty hen house?’ One of the most powerful laws of nature is the law of unintended consequences, the cobra effect.

“The Cobra effect occurs when incentives designed to solve a problem end up rewarding people for making it worse. The term originated in… an occurrence in India under British rule.“ (E. Hammerman, The 10-Group). Back when India was ‘occupied’ by the British (what country on Earth has escaped that happy event?), the imperial forces were concerned about the number of poisonous snakes in Delhi. The government offered a bounty for every dead cobra. Initially, the plan worked as the number of dead snakes piled up. But, almost predictably, some imaginative entrepreneurs began breeding the venomous reptiles to profit from the bounty. When the government realized what they were encouraging, they cancelled the program, leaving cobra breeders with thousands of worthless snakes—which they released, thus increasing the wild cobra population to higher levels than before the implementation of the scheme.

Similar events have taken place with rats in Vietnam, pigs in Georgia, and more recently with environmental incentives in California, the United Kingdom, as well as in Europe. “Credits for the destruction of a damaging coolant,HFC-23, were finally suspended in the European Union in 2013 after companies started to produce the damaging gas to collect millions of dollars in carbon credits.”

The Law of Unintended Consequences once again shone bright, this time in Northern Ireland. The British government, in an effort to encourage the switch to renewable energy, offered an incentive to use wood pellets rather than petroleum products for heating. The incentive was so generous that boilers used for heating were left on 24/7 to collect as much ‘incentive’ as possible. One enterprising farmer heated an empty chicken shed, in anticipation of collecting over a million £ in 20 years. The program cost the British government over 500 million £ before it was eventually cancelled.

Again in the UK, a bright light in the UK’s government came up with the plan to offer 500£ to anyone with a positive COVID test result. The ‘Nudge Unit’, a Behavioral Insights Team, suggested that giving people a lump of cash would likely inspire them to deliberately infect themselves. In addition, those who were infected could benefit from their potentially profitable infectiousness.

The government tried, not too successfully, to quietly quash the program. It might be a good idea to ask, ‘What could possibly go wrong?’, before launching these sorts of remedy-driven programs. Now, one has to ask: “Is there any truth to the possible rumour that the Canadian Conservative Party is offering a cash payout to voters who can provide photo-evidence that they have voted, not for Mr. Trudeau, but rather, for their candidate?” Similarly, would ‘The Party of the People’ offer a counter incentive to their supporters to demonstrate that they had not voted for the party of the man who had stood in solidarity with the truckers when they ‘occupied’ the streets of downtown Ottawa? (yes, ‘occupied’…as in, those from far away who come and park themselves in your environment and make themselves as obnoxious/noxious/odious as possible during the process…this is not a social visit) And would the voters of Canada…that ever-shrinking group of responsible citizens, offer some kind of incentive for any and all governments that refuse to use the ‘Notwithstanding Clause’ frivolously? What could possibly go wrong?


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here