Government initiatives designed to help sometimes have the opposite effect — and the citizens are usually the ones who suffer.
Sometimes called the cobra effect thanks to an anecdote about British-ruled India and their struggles with the venomous cobras, the real event it’s likely based on is a future French president’s war with the rat population in Hanoi.
In 1897, the Third French Republic was only a few decades out of the country’s empire days, and Emperor Napoleon III’s colonial expansions were slowly adapting to being managed by a republic. French Indochina, now modern-day Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, was in dire need of help.
Paul Dourmer, a French official, was appointed Governor-General of French Indochina. He quickly got to work modernizing the antiquated country, including the city of Hanoi. Along with buildings in the French style in the city, Dourmer also installed a modern convenience — the sewer system.
Unfortunately for Dourmer, the dark and cool sewers eventually attracted pests. With difficult access and a labyrinth of tunnels most predators wouldn’t venture into, the subterranean maze quickly became a rat highway. The rodent population soon exploded.
For Dourmer’s government, this was unacceptable.
A major initiative was soon underway. Pulling labor from the conquered Vietnamese, teams of rat catchers were assembled and sent into the sewers. Their pay would be determined for how many rat tails they turned in. The more tails they brought in, the more cash they would be handed.
By the numbers, the program was quickly becoming a success. In the first week of being implemented, historian Michael Vann writes that nearly 8,000 rats were turned in. Eventually this number would balloon to over 10,000 rats each day.
As the rat massacre dragged on it was quickly becoming clear that although the rat catchers could effectively stack rodent bodies, there were simply too many rats to control.
The decision was made for the government to expand beyond professional rat catchers, and offer an open bounty on the rats.
To make things easier for clerks managing the bounty program, only the rat’s tail was needed to collect the bounty. At one cent per tail, the bounty could prove to be a lucrative side job for many impoverished Vietnamese.
Thousands of rat tails poured in. It looked like French Hanoi was finally about to get a handle on the rodent problem, until officials made a humiliating discovery.
Increasingly frequent reports of tailless rats were making it back to the government, and in time, they pieced it together. Villagers were simply cutting the tails from rats and releasing them back into the wild. Intact besides a removed tail and a bruised ego, the rats were still fully capable of multiplying.
France, the colonial power that brought plumbing and modern architecture to a dark and seemingly primitive land, had been outsmarted by the same people it subjugated.
This same pattern can be seen in nearly all periods of history to varying degrees of disaster.
In 1950s China, Mao Zedong issued rewards for dead sparrows. The birds ate grain, and the communists reasoned that was the people’s grain. Less sparrows, more grain. Hundreds of millions were killed by the hopeful Chinese.
Unfortunately, sparrows also keep locusts and other pests in check. The locust population exploded, and tens of millions of people would die in the following years’ famine.
On a different level than the communist Chinese programs, former First Lady Michelle Obama’s healthy lunch initiative could also be considered a perfect example of the rat effect.
Instituting guidelines for school lunches that would have ideally led to fuller, healthier, and more attentive students, the initiative ended in failure. Compliant lunches were disgusting or woefully inadequate, and often ended up simply dumped in the trash by students who would rather go hungry.
Despite their failures, each of these leaders skipped accountability for their actions. Mao Zedong became a national icon. Michelle Obama now enjoys lucrative speaking engagements with Barack.
Soon after the rat fiasco, Paul Dourmer left his post in Indochina. He later became the president of France.
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