Is Our Content Too Depressing?

A Freakonomics Radio listener named Sudha Krishna writes with an e-mail titled “Praise and Concern.”

The praise is very nice — she finds the show “informative, entertaining, and lots of fun,” etc. — but it is the concern that most interests me. As she writes:

I confess I often find Freakonomics Radio depressing. While I am a believer in the power of “unintended consequences,” I find your story selection (and I am a consistent and attentive listener) depressing and discouraging. The stories tend to be focused on (and I am being a wee bit reductive) “good intentions leading to bad consequences (or at very least awry).” The consistent lesson of every episode — a nod to the supremacy of the market and the inexorable power of incentives (not sure about that lesson either). Rarely do you explore the opposite — bad intentions resulting in good consequences. Does such an example exist? One curious listener of Freakonomics Radio wants to know. 

I could probably quarrel a little bit with Sudha — at least some of our shows are about some interesting solution to a problem, or at least an explanation for why such a problem exists. And I tend to think that Levitt and I are borderline extreme optimists, at least on many dimensions. But I get her point. The pattern she identifies is definitely a pattern.

So,  in the interest of learning to think more broadly, I would love to identify some great ideas or stories about “bad intentions resulting in good consequences,” as Sudha puts it. Please leave your very best ideas (or even your mediocre ones) in the comments section below. Thanks to you and especially to Sudha.

Christina Chambronne

The first suitable example of "bad intentions coming to good consequences" that comes to my mind are creation of such countries as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, which are consequence of the formation and dissolution of the USSR.

A more suitable one also comes to mind: Schindler's forced labor factory helped to save some Jews.

Shane L

Yeah, I like this question!

Well for starters the horror of Nazi extermination camps probably went a long way towards destroying the perceived legitimacy of racist narratives in the 20th century.


Coincidentally I'm reading an article that covers this topic at this very moment Well, I'm typing at this very moment, but you get the picture.

I think a lot of the potential "unintended consequences leading to positive outcomes" stories will be about shifting money from one party to another in a kind of Keynesian dance and calling it positive by ignoring the losers. I wonder how you might find stories about things that enriched the market, eliminated needless costs, and increased the value of the assets people were holding.


I think economist avoid this line of thought for fear of falling into the broken window fallacy.

Kyle Whatley

Hasn't Economics been called "the Dismal Science" since the 19th Century?

Maureen McCormick

I am thinking of anyone who has experienced a tragedy (someone else's bad intentions) and turned it into an opportunity for advocacy.

John Walsh's son Adam was abducted and killed. Mr. Walsh created the TV show America's Most Wanted, which helped locate many children and raise public awareness of the problem of child abduction.

After Candy Lightner's daughter was killed by a drunk driver, she founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving and raised public awareness of the problem of drunk driving.

Sarah and Jim Brady became tireless advocates for gun control after Mr. Brady was shot and severely injured.


mmm... Trying to use the arms race to collapse the Soviet Union by bankrupting it. The believed that they would be harming Russian people but protecting citizens of the United States. However, it actually liberated Russians in many ways from a very predatory state?

Torturing Jesus of Nazareth made it possible for humans to be saved from sin (for religious people).

Matthew Lusk

1) nuclear energy was borne of nuclear weaponry. How many people were killed by nuclear weapons (so far) - how much good has been done by nuclear energy?

2) The Navstar constellation of satellites was deployed to guide cruise missiles, and now guides hikers

3) Captain Cook was actually sent on the voyage of discovery during which he found australia, etc., for military purposes. He was to observe Venus's transit of the sun, so that more accurate celestial models could be created from which more accurate naval maps could be drawn (kind of like #2)

4) Massive areas of the American west are among the most unmolested places on the continent because they have been cordoned off as military "ranges" and proving grounds".


You do realize that you seem to be applying very subjective standards of "bad" here. Some people think that military objectives can be good, at least in moderation. So we could legitimately "good" military use of GPS systems has led to the "bad" civilian use of in-car GPS systems, which leads to a number of people getting stuck on remote roads, or driving over cliffs and into canals, as people unthinkly follow the GPS instead of using their eyes & brains.


What about the story of the farmers of Xiaogang? They violated collective farming laws and helped spark a small grassroots movement that led to the privatization of farming, that led to 300 million people escaping poverty over 30 years in China.

Capitalism may be the definition of "bad intentions (i.e greed) resulting in good consequences."

James Kemper

Here is an example from personal experience: last semester, in one of my macro sections, I had a student who abused our school's attendance policy (didn't come to class) and I was forced to drop the student per school policy. The student made a ruckus and complained and complained, and eventually was heard/quieted. I re-enrolled the student, who was smart but lazy, back in the class, with the condition they had to work really hard and would only be able to make a C. The student did it, and while they put in A work the rest of the semester they only received a low C.

I figured the incentive was for the student to take their hard earned C, never talk to me again, and go one their merry way (everyone is begrudgingly better off). However, the student said I was one of their favorite teachers and, to my surprise, they are enrolled in my micro course this semester.



For Hitler, the LAST THING he would have wanted to come from the Holocaust was the rise of a Jewish state. Yet the horrific circumstances of WWII pressed the point home, resulting in a nation of Israel.

No, this is NO WAY excuses or even lessens the pain of the Holocaust, nor does it in the slightest take away the vast guilt of the perpetrators. But as one famous Jew--the Apostle Paul--wrote: "All things work together for good to them who love the Lord...."

I have wondered, too, if this an "answer" for those who wonder about the problem of evil. The answer would be that, yes, evil happens. It is not wanted by God, it is punished by God...yet for all of that, something beneficial can arise from the pain and ashes.

At least that's the way I see it.

Shane L

The birth of the state. I've read (Mancur Olson and Jared Diamond) that states probably arose from parasitical elites conquering areas to secure regular loot via taxation or some other kind of tribute. Yet it is argued that the security from roving bandits brought about by states contributed to economic growth, wealth accumulation and, in the very long term, personal liberties.


I could see where she's coming from. I listen to your podcast regularly. But I would disagree with her in that I don't think you content depressing but rather goes to the reality of the matter. Despite the subject being explored, when something is truly examined it's hard not to find the good, the bad, the ugly and occasionally the beautiful. That said, I suppose it might be worth exploring subjects that push Sudha's thought. Bad things that resulted in really good things, good things that really went bad, the grotesque that created the sublime, the weakness that created power...


The first thing that came to mind was breaking up with your boyfriend or girlfriend, as the case may be. I've had a couple of those instances where a girlfriend broke up with me. After some reflection and after a time, it became apparent that it was the best thing that could have happened to me. Same thing when I was doing the breaking up. I experienced some dread in what I would have to do, but, as the saying goes, it all worked out for the best.

Darren C

The idea of Creative Destruction should go in this comments section.

Gregg Collins

"Bad intentions, good consequences"--or at least "selfish intentions, good consequences"--is the old Adam Smith/invisible hand idea, isn't it? Obviously there are millions of potential stories that that fit this mold, but I suspect you would not see these as Freakonomics material, because most would be economics cliches. Your niche is to highlight the stories where there is a twist, not retell the lessons of classical economics.

But I might re-interpret Sudha's point as requesting an uplifting, as opposed to discouraging, twist. To me that would be something more like "seemingly naive good intentions against all odds result in good consequences".

Joe J

An old one. In the Middle ages a town was struck by the plague, the neighboring areas, quarantined the town to stop it from spreading. This caused it to ravage the town, however the descendants of the survivors of said town have some of the best immunity systems, which is being studied to help end other diseases.

The advancement of the field of medicine and science in any war is amazing. Necessity is the mother of invention.


Why not good intentions that led to unpredicted good outcomes? Often to solve one problem (especially in engineering) you have to solve a novel totally unforeseen problem. Or you develop a technology that has unexpected practical applications elsewhere.

NASA is a classic example:

From an economics standpoint, it's worth considering the side benefits from organizations like NASA when considering whether to give them government funding. If we have proof of positive externalities, they should be taken into effect when deciding on funding. Sadly, that usually doesn't happen.

Anders Johnson

There's Milton Friedman's story about the Union Army inadvertently halting the South's hyperinflation by destroying its ability to print Confederate dollars.