Rat Farming

Once upon a time, there was a jungle port.  Being a jungle port, there was a profusion of rats that disturbed the populace and discouraged business.  The authorities resolved to do something.

So, of course, the rat population exploded.

No, this isn’t a government joke.  Or, rather, it’s the kind of thing that explains why there are government jokes.  Let’s see what the missing steps are.

The populace, troubled with rats, was, like every society ever, also troubled by insufficient money.

People worked hard to get extra rats to sell.  Rats became a commodity.

The situation was made ever so much worse by the decision to pay the bounty on tails, and tail-less rats can still live to produce lots more little ratlings.

Wikipedia labels this the Cobra Effect after a far more apocryphal version related to India, but I find Rat Farming to be far more vivid and descriptive term.  It’s a very useful concept to know, and the examples have a certain entertaining (if often depressing) situational irony to them.  Here’s a few more:

  • Some factories started producing more ecologically damaging chemicals so they could get paid for destroying them.
  • Gun buyback programs have the potential to increase gun ownership.  As an even more direct example, Wikipedia claims a Baltimore $50/firearm buyback program led to entrepreneurs shipping in large numbers of $22 guns.
  • As a final and less discouraging example, the Iranian Guard once put a bounty on Bibles – while the missionaries were giving them out for free.  (Sadly, I’m unable to find my reference for this one at the moment.  I’ll update when I find it.)

I know I’ve seen more examples, these are simply what I have on the top of my head.  Some googling does turn up a few click-bait-y lists and a Freakonomics pod-cast that more or less cover the same ground, but I’m sure there are novel and creative examples out there, and I invite readers to comment with any they can think of.

Whenever there ares bounties, or buybacks, or even a compensated confiscation, there’s a risk of Rat Farming.  Whatever it’s called, though, the general pattern is this: somebody, somewhere thought it made sense to pay for something they didn’t want.

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