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Wednesday, April 08, 2015

What Ifs and Unintended Consequences

This is Steven Petrick posting.

One of the advantages we have is that we can look back on history and ask ourselves "what if." One of the most common "what ifs" is of course "If you could go back in time and kill baby Adolf Hitler, would you?" I have answered that one recently on our board.

The problem with playing "what if" is that as a merely "mind exercise" it overlooks the "law of unintended consequences."

Reading a lot of science fiction I often come across those in stories. One posited a time traveler crushing a seed. What effect could that have? When he returned to his "present" he found that the Native Americans built ships and invaded and overran Europe.

To return to Hitler, remember that he came to power in part due to Germany's defeat in World War I. Maybe we do not need to kill baby Hitler, maybe we need to kill baby Gavrilo Princip as I mentioned in a topic on the board. In 1914 young Mr. Princip shot and killed Archduke Ferdinand which was the triggering event that set off World War I. In truth, Europe was very much a powder keg waiting for a triggering event, and removing Mr Princip would perhaps have delayed the start, or someone else would simply have acted at the same time in his stead (he was not the only assassin that day, merely the one that succeeded).

Suppose instead go a little further back and eliminate the baby Otto von Bismark. Without the Iron Chancellor it is possible that Germany might not have been unified, the Franco-Prussian War might not have occurred. Without that, Kaiser Wilhelm may not have been Kaiser (emperor) of the Germans, but merely Koenig (King) of Prussia, and would not have begun a Naval Arms Race with England since Prussia alone could not match England's industrial ship building might. This in turn would cause England and France not to ally but remain in competition with each other, and perhaps World War I does not happen (or is perhaps a very different war).

Maybe we could go back and kill the baby Karl Marx. Or perhaps baby V. I. Lenin, or Stalin? The question is always whether things would in fact be better, the same, or worse.

If I had the option to go back in time and try to change something, anything at all, I probably would not out of fear that as bad as some things are in the present, they could potentially be very, very much worse with a relatively small change snowballing through the unintended consequences that we just cannot see.

Even intervening to prevent the sinking of the Titanic could have disastrous consequences down the road. Maybe someone on that ship would have been the American Hitler during the Great Depression (for an example of that, read "It Can't Happen Here" by Sinclair Lewis, although his protagonists have no relationship to the Titanic, I just note that saving lives on the Titanic could have "unintended consequences").