For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
for want of a shoe the horse was lost;
and for want of a horse the rider was lost;
being overtaken and slain by the enemy,
all for want of care about a horse-shoe nail.
-Benjamin Franklin 1758
It has also been called the 'butterfly effect' and it is the stuff of parables, showing that small actions can result in large unanticipated consequences. Large or small, actions clearly do have consequences which in turn produce other consequences. Several decades ago, New York City learned that simple neighborhood cleanup and repair, such as fixing broken windows, keeping he sidewalks swept and cleaning graffiti off the walls, had the effect of reducing the overall crime rate.
I recently wrote about how the federal minimum wage rate was used in various Kentucky statutes as a benchmark. (fn 1) The impact of a change in the minimum wage rate affects the availability of Kentucky tax credits and development grants, the amount of wages that can be garnished to collect a debt and the annual budget of the Commonwealth's many property valuation administrators. These are side effects unrelated to the main purpose of the minimum wage itself.
It also seems likely that the Affordable Care Act will have many unexpected consequences. The number of individuals who lack health insurance drops directly as the uninsured sign up for coverage on the new ACA insurance exchanges, are newly qualified for Medicaid or can be covered under a parent's policy to age 26. Also, because of the individual mandate, more people have enrolled in employer sponsored health insurance that had been available before the ACA but which previously had been declined. Many who were qualified to receive Medicaid before the Affordable Care Act but who did not enroll before do enroll now because of the increased publicity surrounding the issue. (fn 2) This all has the ripple effect of increasing health insurance coverage in unexpected and indirect ways.
It also seems likely that increased healthcare insurance coverage will have the effect of reducing the future costs of other insurance like automobile coverage and workers' compensation. (fn 3) Minor job-related injuries or injuries resulting from automobile accidents may be paid for by expanded general healthcare insurance rather than through the car or workers' compensation insurance coverage.
It's all very complex, interrelated and difficult for the human mind to anticipate. It is the ripple effect, but is there any general rule that applies to help us understand it and to give us guidance? I like to think that good produces more good and neglect multiplies itself as in the parable of the horseshoe. “A stitch in time saves nine,” is a parable of the ripple effect in positive terms. Sometimes the effects are mixed, or at least ambiguous.
The Christian Bible clearly articulates an attitude toward life and a duty toward our brothers and sisters that calls for looking after the less fortunate that relates to modern public policy issues. (fn 4) “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these; you did not do for me.” Matthew 25:45.
It has been said that a window washer hanging for the side of a thirty story building can see farther because of his higher vantage point, and not because of any superior intelligence. It might be wise to trust what those with a higher vantage point have tried to teach us. Do good in small things and the good will be magnified through the world in ways we cannot comprehend.
4. An Argument For Tax Reform Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics
Alabama Law Review, Vol. 54, No. 1, 2002