The term “blowback” was originally used by intelligence services to describe violent, unintended consequences of covert operations. A big example of this was the CIA financing and training insurgents in Afghanistan to fight a guerrilla war against the USSR, who then turned around and joined al-Qaeda. Indeed, Osama bin Laden himself was one of those insurgents trained by the CIA.
But the term blowback is increasingly being used to describe any unintended consequences of political or social action, especially one that has the opposite of the intended effect. And right now, we have a number of interesting and downright counter-intuitive examples of this:
- Torturing our enemies to gain information (to keep us safe) became one of the strongest recruiting tools of those same enemies, making us far less safe.
- According to new research, as religious groups have become more socially and politically active, younger Americans have abandoned organized religion, because they view it as a source of intolerance, rigidity, and doctrinaire political views. So the drive to make religion more powerful has instead weakened it.
- Media overreaction to the threat of the swine flu caused people to take precautions that were out of proportion to the actual threat (such as staying home from school or work, avoiding subways, airplanes, and sporting events, and wearing masks), which limited the spread of the flu. If we hadn’t overreacted, then it likely would have been much worse. But that doesn’t stop people from making fun of the people who overreacted.
- In 2001, Portugal decriminalized personal possession of illicit drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. At the time, Portugal had some of the highest rates of hard drug use in Europe. Since then, drug use has dropped significantly and is now among the lowest in Europe. At the same time the US was instituting some of the harshest anti-drug laws in the world, and now has the highest usage rates in the world.
- And my favorite is that having a strongly “pro-business” government that removes regulations and subsidizes big businesses, seems to actually hurt business, leading to business failures, deficits, and recessions. It seems like business needs some of that tough love to do well. Or maybe it is just that when everyone is looking out only for themselves, then everyone suffers.
I’m sure you can come up with other examples of this.