The Story of Hongi

Well, I haven’t posted anything in a long time. I’ve had some horrible problems with an older PC — more about those another day. Anyway, I had to create a new system, and in the process of importing my old data I ran across this little piece, from February, 1999. I wrote this up for the Colorado LP’s newsletter, the Colorado Liberty.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

A hundred and fifty years ago New Zealand was a wilderness, virtually untouched by European civilization. The English missionaries who were among the first to settle there were busily engaged in the business of bringing Christian civilization to the native Maori tribesmen. One of their early converts was a chieftain named Hongi who was by all accounts a most magnificent wild man — tall, strong, handsome, and plastered with tattoos according to the custom of his tribe.

The missionaries eventually ran short of money. Certain that Hongi would inspire curiosity and generosity among the church members back home, they decided to send him to England as part of a fundraising committee.

Hongi created an absolute sensation in England. Droves of people flocked to see him. He was admired not only for his commanding stature and powerful physique, but also for the unusual and colorful artifacts of Maori civilization surrounding him when he was on display. Tales of the harsh conditions confronting his people evoked great sympathy, and generous donations from dozens of congregations came rolling in.

As Hongi and the missionaries prepared to sail back to New Zealand a delegation of well-wishers headed by an envoy from the Queen bestowed a gift upon the Maori chieftain. They gave him a huge collection of shovels, rakes, and hoes, and many bags of seed, along with instructions on how these instruments should be employed. They urged Hongi to take these tools back home. They wished him all the best, and said they hoped he would use their gift to feed his people.

Hongi did in fact use that gift to feed his tribe, but not the way the missionaries hoped he would. When his ship put in at Sydney, Hongi sold the agricultural implements and the seed. He used the money to purchase rifles and ammunition. Returning to New Zealand, he taught his own tribe to use the white man’s weapons and then waged war upon his neighbors. Hongi and his people slaughtered hundreds of their Maori rivals, and in the best tradition of their kind, they cooked and ate each victim.

Hongi’s story is not an isolated incident. The pages of history bristle with similar if not quite so gruesome examples. Wherever and whenever men set out to make improvements in other people’s lives, they find themselves face to face with the ineluctable law of unintended consequences: Because the future is unknown and every human being has the power to make his own choices, my attempts to improve your situation will have consequences neither of us can imagine at the outset.

This is not to say that the human condition cannot be improved. Rather, the law of unintended consequences tells us that grand schemes for societal improvement often backfire. It says there are no magic bullets. It keeps us on our toes when social reformers are busily peddling panaceas and utopias. And it does its very best work when it moves us individually. Since I do not know what effect my efforts to improve my neighbors will have on them, there is only one sure way to make this world a better place — by doing what I can to improve myself.