Tracing the consequences

​Smoking kills. We know this know. The evidence is irresistible. But still, people are content to smoke and kill themselves. But in the 60s and 70s, the negative impact of smoking wasn’t so recognised. But efforts to prevent and lessen it were beginning. 

I came across this passage from an essay called “Sifting the Ashes.” It’s from Jonathan Franzen’s book, called How to Be Alone. Pay attention and see if you can see the lesson to be learned.

​“… in 1955, when the Federal Trade Commission sought to curb misleading advertising by banning the publication of tar and nicotine levels, the ruling proved to be a boon to the industry, enabling it to advertise filter cigarettes for their implicit safety even a sit raised the toxic yield to compensate for the filters. So it went with the 1965 law requiring warning labels on cigarette packs, which preempted potentially more stringent state and local regulation and provided a priceless shield against future liability suits. So it went, too, with the 1971 congressional ban on broadcast cigarette advertising, which saved the industry millions of dollars, effectively froze out potential new competitors by denying them the broadcast platform, and put an end to the devastating antismoking ads then being broadcast under the fairness doctrine. Even such left-handed regulation as the 1982 increase in the federal excise tax benefited the industry, which used the tax as a screen for a series of price increases, doubling the price per pack in a decade, and invested the windfall in diversification. 

In the industry’s defense in liability suits, the paradox can be seen in its purest form: because no plaintiff can claim ignorance of tobacco’s hazards—i.e, precisely because the cigarette is the most notoriously lethal product in America—it’s manufacturers cannot be held negligent for selling it.” 

Every act intended to weaken the tobacco industry strengthened it.

In 1946, Henry Hazlitt wrote a book called Economics in One Lesson. In the first chapter, he gives his lesson.

“The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”

​“Tracing the consequences.” That it is what is known as higher-order thinking. Sebastian Marshall has written about in his Uncommon Virtues series. In layman’s terms, it’s recognising that your actions have consequences, that there are consequences to those consequences, consequences to those consequences and so on.

As Jonathan Franzen illustrates, and as you may recognise yourself, neglecting the higher order effects of a decision is unwise. Dangerous even. It is because of the absence of higher-order thinking that the best intentions unleash great harm.