The “Cobra Effect” Is When Trying To Fix Something Actually Makes It Worse. Conservatives Are Now Engaged In Their Own Version Of The Cobra Effect.

— David Grace (

What Is The Cobra Effect?

The term “The Cobra Effect” (sometimes also called “perverse results”) refers to what happens when the attempt to fix a problem actually makes that problem worse.

The name comes from the following incident:

Concerned over the large number of poisonous snakes in Delhi, India the British government offered a bounty for each dead cobra turned in. While initially many cobras were captured and surrendered for the bounty, people soon began breeding cobras in order to get the money. Unhappy with paying for farmed snakes instead of wild ones, the government cancelled the program.

Since the snakes no longer had any value, the cobra breeders went out of business and released their inventory into the wild.

Instead of decreasing the number of poisonous snakes, the net result of the cobra bounty program was to substantially increase the number of wild cobras in the country.

The Conservative Philosophy

The conservative philosophy is based on middle-class values such as planning ahead, saving money, working hard, being a go-getter, a careful shopper, someone who obeys the rules, goes the extra mile, etc.

Under the conservative philosophy:

  • If you want medical care, it’s up to you to pay for it. No Medicaid.
  • If you want to eat, it’s up to you. No food stamps.
  • If you want higher pay, it’s up to you to get it. No living-wage minimum wage.

Conservatives believe that everyone should be responsible for themselves and pay their own way, that societies should follow the sink-or-swim, you’re-on-your-own principle.

They have been working hard to fashion a government whose laws follow those principles.

What the conservatives don’t realize is that their attempt to build a society that runs according to their ideas is a massive implementation of the Cobra Effect.

The Economic Effects Of Conservative Values

In a government run according to conservative values:

  • Lower-class people have little or no access to medical care. If someone without medical insurance gets injured or sick, they can’t work. If they do manage to get medical care, they can’t pay for it and they end up in bankruptcy.
  • Wages for unskilled workers are low because conservatives oppose the concept of a minimum wage. That means unskilled workers and low-talent workers live below the poverty line.
  • There is no free job training, so members of the lower class have no access to higher-skilled jobs.
  • There is no free daycare so single mothers are unable to earn a living wage and must depend on welfare supplemented by part-time, minimum wage jobs.
  • If you don’t have a family that has the money and the willingness to train you, or if you don’t have the talent or intelligence to be able to be trained to perform a skilled job, you remain an unskilled worker living below the poverty line.
  • If you were above the poverty line and got sick, saw your job shipped abroad or just disappear, lost your house, etc. you and your children will quickly become members of the lower class.

Conservative orthodoxy holds that anyone can climb out of the lower-class, but that is not true, and that fallacy is one of the main reasons why the conservative principles they’re enacting are creating a huge Cobra Effect.

Understanding this situation all begins with understanding the difference between middle-class cultural values and lower-class cultural values.

What Is Culture?

Your culture is the set of rules that describes how most people in your community live their lives. It defines the community’s generally-accepted rules about how its members act in various situations and their commonly held beliefs about how their lives work and how their society works.

Within every community, culture is like an infection. It passes from parent to child, from person to person. It permeates each culture.

The Connection Between Poverty & Lower-Class Cultural Values

One of the first things urban poverty does is damage the family structure. It does it with children being born to unwed mothers, absentee fathers, drugs, alcohol and gangs.

Urban poverty breeds single-parent or no-parent households, children with no positive adult role models, pregnancies at an early age where the children are born and raised outside of a stable family unit, poor diet, poor health, high unemployment, low wages, etc.

When you’re poor there are dozens of things that can shatter whatever life you might have struggled to build. Random life events that would be an inconvenience to someone in the upper middle class are fatal to a family in the lower class.

If you’re sick, you can’t work. Both single-parent and two-parent poor households are constantly challenged by medical problems. If you’re trying to hold a family together without enough money to pay for three meals a day or buy winter clothes and someone gets a kidney stone or a hernia or cracked tooth or pneumonia or any of a hundred other common medical problems, you and what’s left of your family are cooked.

Or maybe the water pump or the alternator or the transmission goes out on the car. Goodbye job. Or maybe you get robbed or the car gets stolen. Now you can’t get to work. Goodbye family.

Lower-Class Cultural Values

Given this knife-edge environment, think about how an average, ordinary lower-class teenager sees his future. He has just average intelligence, no training, no special skills, no family with the money to train him for a good job. There are probably no jobs at all available for him and certainly no jobs that will pay him a living wage.

He has no future and he knows it. If he expects to have children some day he knows they will have no future either.

If you know you have no future, you don’t save for that non-existent future. You live for today. If you know you don’t have the skills, talent, intelligence or training to earn a good living, you look for some other way to get money.

If the only people you see who are like you and have money are drug dealers and criminals, that’s the principal avenue you will see for yourself as the way that you can get money.

If you see something you can take without getting caught, you will take it. If you see a way to get some quick money, you will take it. Life is short and not very enjoyable. If you see some easy pleasure, drugs, sex, alcohol, you will grab it.

Live for today, look for a short cut, following rules is for suckers, look out for number one, etc.

No one’s helping you. The government and rich people tell you that you’re on your own. Their sink-or-swim rules show that they don’t give a damn about you. Why should you care about them? They’ve built a society where they get rich and your life is crap. Nobody’s doing anything to help you get a chance at a good life. To hell with them. They take what they can get. You take what you can get.

These are the cultural rules that most lower-class children learn as they grow up. You don’t have to like them or agree with them. You may think they’re terrible. You may think that people shouldn’t have them. None of what you think about them matters because what you think should be has no effect on what is.

What you absolutely do have to do is realize that they exist no matter what you think about them.

Culture Dictates Actions

A conservative would say that someone in the lower class can get out by finding one or better yet two minimum crappy wage jobs someplace and working his butt off and maybe then applying for community college and engaging in some Horatio Alger fantasy journey, but those are the steps that only an extremely tough, strong individual with middle-class values might take.

They aren’t the steps that people with lower-class values will take.

Sure, there are always exceptions to the rule. A few people in the lower class are really smart. A few more might be really talented. A few more might have great determination.

Some of these smart, talented, determined people might escape being drug addicts or being shot or dropping out of school to support a child.

Of those, some will use their intelligence and skills to work at being really successful thieves or drug dealers because those are the occupations open to them and those are the people they see every day as examples of how money can be made.

Practically speaking, a relatively small percentage of people in the lower class with lower-class cultural values are going to escape the lower class in a world with no living-wage unskilled jobs, no free job training, no subsidized medical care, not enough food, no free day care, and a government that tells them that they’re on their own and that if they’re poor it’s because they deserve to be poor.

The Negative Feedback Loop

The progression is:

  • Lose your grip on your precarious middle-class life and fall into the lower class.
  • Begin to absorb lower-class values.
  • Have children who are steeped in lower-class values.
  • Without ready access to free re-training or living-wage unskilled jobs, free medical care or daycare you will remain in the lower class.
  • Your kids have more kids who will also have lower-class values.

Repeat and grow.

A One-Way Societal Valve

A diode is an electronic component that allows electricity to flow in only one direction. Electrons can easily go from A to B but they cannot go back from B to A.

Under the conservatives’ system, there is no mechanism for ordinary, average, people growing up in the lower class with lower class values to return to the middle class because under conservative principles it’s wrong for the government to

  • use tax money to train people,
  • use tax money to provide medical care,
  • use tax money to provide daycare
  • use tax money or to employ large numbers of unskilled workers at a living wage.
  • force employers to pay a living wage and provide medical insurance.

The conservatives point to poor peoples’ lower-class values as a justification for their “you’re on our own” policies.

“Those people are lazy. They’re stupid. They don’t plan ahead. They don’t save their money. They use drugs and alcohol. Blah, blah, blah. Therefore, they deserve to be poor. If only they were more like us, everything would be fine.”

For various reasons, many of which are a direct result of the rules the conservatives themselves enacted, people fell into the lower class:

  • People didn’t choose to have their jobs shipped overseas.
  • People didn’t choose to have their jobs eliminated by technology.
  • People didn’t choose to be born with only average or below average intelligence.
  • People didn’t choose to be born without any valuable talents.
  • People didn’t choose to be born into a lower-class family.
  • People didn’t choose to be born to an unwed mother or into a household with an absent father.

But once they ended up in the lower class they were inculcated with lower-class cultural values.

Now, having created a system that threw them into the lower class and which provides no exit from the lower class, the conservatives blame lower-class people for having the cultural values that the conservative’s own system has caused them to be immersed in.

They’ve either been pushed into the lower class by the system built by the conservatives or born into an underclass from which the conservative’s system gives people with their cultural values no way to escape.

Now that they’re in the lower class, the conservatives blame them for having the values of the social class they never wanted to be a member of in the first place and from which the conservatives’ government provides no route to escape.

Step-By-Step, Where Things Turned Into A Cobra Effect

  • To succeed in the conservatives’ society you have to have middle-class values.
  • To have middle-class values, you first have to first get out of the lower class and into the middle class, but you can’t do that with lower-class cultural values without government support.
  • To get into the middle class, lower-class people with lower-class values have to have access to free training for an available job that pays a living wage or access to an unskilled job that pays a living wage.
  • The conservative philosophy forbids taxpayer-funded job training and it forbids requiring employers to pay a living-wage minimum wage.
  • The conservative philosophy forbids the government from doing any of the things necessary to migrate lower-class people with lower-class values into the middle class.
  • As people get knocked out of the middle class into the lower class or are born into the lower class they need and demand more government support.
  • The conservative’s reaction to this increasing need is to cut those programs and allow employers both to ship good-paying jobs overseas and to pay the lowest possible domestic wages. They also enact policies that allow the pharmaceutical and medical industries to increase the cost of medical care.
  • The more those social safety net programs are cut, the more wages stagnate, the more the cost of medical care increases, the more people are pushed into the lower class.
  • The greater the number of people who are pushed into the lower class the greater the number of people who live by lower-class cultural values.
  • The more people who adopt lower-class values the more crime, drugs and gangs increase.
  • The more crime, drugs and gangs increase, the more the government spends on police, courts and prisons.
  • The more the government spends on police, courts and prisons the less money there is to fund programs that will help people escape from the lower class and, instead, the bigger the lower class grows.
  • The bigger the lower class grows, the more people adopt lower-class values, the more crime, drugs, and gangs increase, the more police and prisons are needed.

A negative feedback loop.

Blame The People, Not The System

When people point out the serious problems their system causes the conservatives’ answer is the same one that the communists gave when they were confronted with their failures:

“Things have turned out badly because of the bad people who don’t act the way they should.”

The communists insisted that their system was great, that It was just the greedy, self-serving people who failed to accept the principles of sharing, altruism and self-sacrifice that screwed things up. If these bad people would only live by communist values then the communist system would work terrifically well.

For both the conservatives and the communists their theories are right. It’s the bad/stupid/loser people who don’t live by the conservative/communist cultural values who have caused all the bad results.

The conservatives will tell you that if people would only act the way the conservatives think they should act, that if they only practiced the middle-class cultural values that the conservatives believe in, then everything would be fine. Those people with the lower-class cultural values are the source of all the problems the conservatives insist, not their system.

Essentially the conservatives are saying that the bottom 20% or 30% of the population doesn’t count. The system the conservatives are creating is designed to only for the other people, the good people, and it’s OK that it doesn’t work for the 20% — 30% at the bottom because they don’t have the right values.

45 million people are below the poverty line; the bottom 20% have a negative wealth, and the bottom 50% of the population cannot cover an unexpected $400 expense, but that’s OK because they don’t share the conservative’s cultural values and therefore they don’t count.

The system isn’t defective, the conservatives insist. It’s the no-good people at the bottom who live under it who are defective. We don’t need to change the system because a large chunk of the population is hurting, the communists and the conservatives tell us. We need to leave the system alone and change the people so that they will have the cultural values that are required for the system to work for them.

Good luck with that.

The False Assumptions That Led To The Bad Results

The conservatives wanted to create a fair society where everyone would pay their own way. They assumed they would end up with a free and prosperous country, but they were wrong.

The rules they adopted were based on the false assumption that

  • everyone who was willing to work would have access to a job that would pay a living wage, which was false, and
  • that poor people possessed the same middle-class values the conservatives did, which was false.

Because of these two false assumptions, the rules they adopted both

  • made it extremely difficult for the members of the lower class to migrate back into the middle class, and
  • added many new members to the lower class.

Summary Of The Conservative’s Cobra Effect

In attempting to make a society that functioned according to conservative principles the conservatives have instead built a system that is constantly increasing the number of people whose values are exactly the opposite of those that the conservatives were trying to promote.

They’ve built a society that is socially a one-way street from the middle class to the lower class, and the values of people at the end of that one-way street are exactly the opposite of the values the conservatives hold dear.

Loss of your job can push you out of the middle class and into the lower class, but once you’re there your children get lower-class values which prevent them from getting back into the middle class in any of the ways that the conservative’s rules allow and the conservatives will not adopt any rules that would work to get people with lower-class values out of lower class.

It’s like that old commercial for the Roach Motel:

They check in but they don’t check out.

— David Grace (

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David Grace

David Grace

Graduate of Stanford University & U.C. Berkeley Law School. Author of 16 novels and over 400 Medium columns on Economics, Politics, Law, Humor & Satire.