Law of unintended consequences more palpable than martial law



First read
THIS past week is one of the most remarkable that I have seen in all the years that I have spent in journalism and public policy studies.

In the span of 10 days, it looked like “the law of unintended consequences” was more dynamic and forceful than the martial law that was proclaimed in Mindanao.

What set me thinking along this line was the contrasting trajectory of the sensational attack on the Resorts World Manila by a lone gunman, and the meandering implementation of Proclamation 216 in Mindanao. I was transfixed by three astonishing developments:

1. The daring attack and attempted robbery of Resorts World had the unintended consequence of impelling the gunman to burn and kill himself, and it then induced Malacañang to declare that Metro Manila will not be placed under martial law.

2. The decision of President Trump to pull the US out of the Paris climate change agreement, had the unintended consequence of impelling billionaire Michael Bloomberg and dozens of US cities to pledge that they will honor with their own resources US obligations under the climate deal regardless of Trump ‘s decision.

3. The Philippine military’s implementation of martial law in Mindanao has been incoherent and confused from the get-go since May 23, when President Duterte signed the declaration in Moscow. While the order meant to envelop the whole of Mindanao, the clash of forces took place only in the city of Marawi. Despite the diminution of territory to cover, the 120,000-strong AFP was hard put to defeat the Maute rebel group. A Friday deadline set by the defense secretary for the evisceration of Maute came and went. The nation then braced itself for a prolonged Marawi siege. AFP forces still do not know where on earth is Isnilon Hapilon.

Law of unintended consequences
In the social sciences, to quote at length an article in Wikipedia, unintended consequences are outcomes that are not the ones foreseen or intended by a purposeful action. The term was popularized in the 20th century by the American sociologist Robert K. Merton.

Unintended consequences, says Merton, can be grouped into three types:

Unexpected benefit: A positive unexpected benefit (also referred to as luck, serendipity or a windfall).

Unexpected drawback: An unexpected detriment occurring in addition to the desired effect of the policy (e.g., while irrigation schemes provide people with water for agriculture, they can increase waterborne diseases that have devastating health effects, such as schistosomiasis).

Perverse result: A perverse effect contrary to what was originally intended (when an intended solution makes a problem worse). This is sometimes referred to also as ‘backfire’.

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has come up with the term “blowback” to describe the unintended, undesirable consequences of covert operations, such as the funding of the Afghan mujahideen and the destabilization of Afghanistan that contributed to the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaida.

The idea of unintended consequences dates to as far back as John Locke who discussed the unintended consequences of interest rate regulation. It was Merton who gave currency to the concept.

In a 1936 paper, “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action,” Merton tried to apply a systematic analysis to the problem of unintended consequences of deliberate acts intended to cause social change.

More recently, the law of unintended consequences has come to be used as an adage or idiomatic warning that an intervention in a complex system tends to create unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes. Akin to Murphy’s law, it is commonly used as a wry or humorous warning against the hubristic belief that humans can fully control the world around them.

The attack on Resorts World was plainly a robbery attempt which the gunman subsequently realized would be futile, because the stolen chips would be useless and he could not possibly escape. That’s when he decided to oblige us by killing himself.

But he surely did not intend the following with his crazy caper:

1. Free Manila from the threat of martial law, and show that IS had no hand in his misadventure.

2. Unravel the lax security in Manila’s casinos and cause the tightening of security in all casinos in the country.

3. Unravel that women, including the wives of public officials, are among the most addicted casino gamblers in our country. Why was the wife of a Pampanga congressman gambling at 7 o’clock in the morning?

Martial law
The law of unintended consequences cannot be found in the Constitution and our statute books.

Martial law is explicitly cited by the Constitution as a power for the President to suppress invasion or rebellion (Article VII, Section 18).

Martial law in Mindanao was designed to address an emergency in Marawi City, but President Duterte decided to expand its scope to cover all of Mindanao.

The striking features of the martial law proclamation in Mindanao are:

1. The proclamation was issued abroad, in Russia, which indicated that President Duterte made haste to impose it, and did not allow for time to carefully plan its implementation.

2. In the implementation, 216 has been loose, even lackadaisical.

3. The government and military were placed in an awkward position, because top defense and security officials were traveling with DU30 in Russia.

4. There is no incumbent secretary of interior and local government; there is only a secretary-designate, a former AFP chief of staff.

5. Without formal designation as the martial law administrator, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has appeared as though he were administering martial law. It is Lorenzana who keeps designating deadlines for the collapse of the Maute resistance.

6. The general commanding government forces against the Maute group has been dismissed for rank failure in his mission.

7. Mindanao martial law appears to be confined entirely to Marawi City, while the rest of Mindanao has hardly felt the declaration. Government troops were not deployed to every province. Even areas known a theaters of the Muslim insurgency were not explicitly subjected to martial law regulations.

Martial law in 1972
It would be absurd to complain that martial law 2017 exhibits none of the harshness of martial law 1972.

It is surely all the better that there are fewer warrantless arrests now, and less violence. Doubtless, this is because today’s martial law is local and not even operational regionwide.

What is missing now is the rigor in the implementation of martial law, and the lack of urgency to meet a threat, which in 1972 was the then raging communist insurgency.

It may be that there is urgency today for martial law in Mindanao because of the Maute terror group and the reported presence of foreign IS fighters in the south

The national security adviser has come on record to say that ISIS is indeed present in the country today. He should explain the matter further.

The Indonesia defense minister, speaking at a forum in Singapore, declared that that there are 1,200 IS fighters in Mindanao. How on earth does he know?

An official AFP spokesman has expressed puzzlement about the Indonesian claim, because the AFP has a different count in its records.

All this is to say that the AFP and the government have to talk sense and talk facts to our people. We should dread the danger of complacency as much as the foolishness of inventing a crisis.


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  1. I actually think the law of unintended consequences is simpler than it may seem. Let me suggest the following:

    The failure of the state to address the needs of its people produced the unintended consequence of the public electing Duterte into office. The concerns that he articulated resonated with the population. The concerns being articulated by the status quo did not resonate well. The media and elite have been up in arms about this, but the people seem to be firmly behind him – despite incessant attacks from the domestic and international press. That says something.

    The failure of the state to address the problems of corruption and drug abuse produced the unintended consequence of the drug war. Suddenly, the nation starts to discover that corruption has seriously penetrated the ranks of the PNP, local and national government. Suddenly, the nation discovers well over a million drug abusers in the country. Suddenly, the nation discovers a link between drugs and crime. And now the nation is beginning to discover a link between the drug business and terrorism. The media is having a tizzy of a time writing about EJK’s and corruption. The public remains supportive of the president. I think this is because to the average man on the street, corruption and drugs are old news. And it appears the media still needs to catch up to that reality.

    The failure of the state to address the growing divide between the rich and the poor produced the unintended consequences of a failed economy and social unrest. In the most extreme cases, the social unrest manifests itself as murderous street gangs, drug lords, and terrorists. But, but, but, how can one claim a failed economy when the Philippines is the rising star? Simple, walk down my streets. The streets are in disrepair, on one street we have magnificent malls, but on most others, you can see the problem with crime, drugs, poverty, poor schools, and the homeless. But, but, but what about martial law and its abuses? Well, sadly the residents on Mindanao have lived with terrorism for a very long time. ISIS is only the current flavor of the month. The real problem is much deeper than ISIS. Martial law? Hallelujah lord … it’s about time.

    • The Great Defiant on

      and who is the real problem after 30 years of oligarchs and LP running this country like rug tags?..

      it took you 30 years for you to came out with your suggestions.
      tool late the hero just like your Mak…