All Commentary
Thursday, January 1, 1998

Unintended Consequences by John Ross

A Novel about the Catastrophic Consequences of Massive Government Regulation

Accurate Press • 1996 • 861 pages • $28.95

John Hospers is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Southern California.

Unintended Consequences by John Ross is an 850-page novel whose central theme is the unintended consequences of seemingly beneficent actions and policies. The author cites historical parallels—the murder of the Austrian heir apparent in Sarajevo in 1914, the Versailles Treaty of 1919—but this work is about the catastrophic consequences of massive government regulation.

Whereas Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged was concerned with what happens when a free economy is strangled by regulation, Ross’s novel has somewhat narrower focus, namely the endless petty regulations on the possession of guns and ammunition. Not only is the ownership of guns prohibited in many states even for purposes of self-protection, but if the steel or the wood on a gun is slightly longer or shorter than the regulations permit for just that size and type of gun, the owner is subjected to endless harassment, fines, and jail sentences. The official reason for the Waco raid (which figures prominently in the book) is the failure of the gun owners to pay a $200 gun tax. “One of the political parties,” the main character concludes, “is going to have to wake up, smell the coffee, and start restoring and reaffirming all the articles in the Bill of Rights—the Second, Fourth, Fifth, and Tenth Amendments.”

The effect of thousands of such regulations, and the ways in which they confer almost unlimited power on the regulators, is described in a series of seemingly unrelated, yet (as it turns out) closely connected, incidents in the novel. The reader is repelled by the account of a mindless bureaucracy with power to ruin careers and imprison innocent victims almost without limit. Like the characters in the book, he will find his anger rising and want to take action. The author’s own words can best give a sense of this feeling:

“The recent policies of raising your taxes, banning your guns, seizing your property, and chilling your freedoms, are the last gasp of an evil monster. That evil monster is socialism, and it is dying. I want to see every one of you at the funeral.”

The applause was thunderous. As Henry watched, his phone rang again. It was Fleming.

“What did you think? There were lots of speakers like that. You’ll see more of them on C-span.”

“Why hasn’t there been any other coverage on local or national news? It looked like there were ten or fifteen thousand people there when they panned the crowd. Haven’t seen a word about it in any newspaper.”

“Does that really surprise you?” Fleming asked. “Hey, like the guy said, cheer up. Socialism’s dying all around the globe. Washington just wants to give it one more try.”

“I hope it doesn’t kill ‘em first,” Henry said as he hung up the phone.

The above passage depicts a rally at a gun club, where the estimate of ten thousand people present seems exaggerated. If one were to guess that this book has sold ten thousand copies, that estimate would probably be also an exaggeration: unknown author, obscure publisher, very little publicity. And this would be a pity: the novel is suspenseful, dramatic, and “must” reading for anyone who wants to learn in detail how a free economy deteriorates.

The author himself clearly wishes his novel to be an influence on American life; he writes in his introduction: “Today in America, honest, successful, talented, productive, motivated people are once again being stripped of their freedom and dignity. . . . The conflict has been building for over half a century, and once again warning flags are frantically waving while the instigators rush headlong toward the abyss, and their doom. It is my hope that these people will stop and reverse their course before they reach the point where such reversal is no longer possible.”

I recommend Unintended Consequences highly.

  • John Hospers was the first presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party and stood in the 1972 general election.