True Stories

The Most Ironic Examples Of The Cobra Effect 

Jacob Shelton
Updated June 14, 2019 1k votes 444 voters 35.1k views 20 items

Coined by the late German economist Horst Siebert, the cobra effect calls back to an idea put in place in India during English colonization. What does it all mean? Well, let’s just say that things didn’t go as planned during colonization and that, in a nutshell, the cobra effect is created when you want to fix a problem, but your solution makes things worse than they were before. It’s sort of like a dude cutting the sleeves off his shirt to make a tank top. Yes, you were hot before and now the tops of your arms are cool, but you’re also a guy wearing a cut off shirt, and that’s horrible. That metaphor doesn't completely encapsulate the socio-economic implications of the cobra effect, but hopefully after you read this list of the most ironic examples of the cobra effect, you’ll be on board.

The unintended consequences of “good ideas” on this list range from massive global destruction, to presidents getting embarrassed on the Internet. Why try to do anything good if it’s just going to blow up in your face? Hopefully after reading this list of cobra effect examples you don’t get thrown under the existential bus and know how to solve your problems without any surprise bad results.

Vote up the instances of the cobra effect you think are the most interesting and if you can think of an example that isn't listed, leave it in the comments section for everyone to enjoy!
The Original Cobra Effect
The Original Cobra Effec... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Most Ironic Examples Of The Cobra Effect
Photo:  Russ Bowling/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The term "cobra effect" stems from the initial British colonization of India. The British government was concerned with the amount of poisonous snakes in the region, so they offered a bounty for every snake killed. Initially this worked like gangbusters, until the locals started breeding the snakes for profit.

When government officials caught wind of this, they cut off the program and the Indian region was filled with even more cobras than before.

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Rats With No Tails
Rats With No Tails is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Most Ironic Examples Of The Cobra Effect
Photo: Rafał Stryjek/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

When Hanoi was under French colonial rule, they discovered that their villages had a rat problem. So the regime created a bounty program, similar to that of the British cobra program, that paid a reward for each rat killed. To get paid, people would provide a severed rat tail and get a little cash. Colonial officials, however, began noticing rats in Hanoi with no tails.

The Vietnamese rat catchers would capture rats, lop off their tails, and then release them back into the sewers so that they could procreate and produce more rats, thereby increasing the rat catchers' revenue.

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The War on Drugs
The War on Drugs is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Most Ironic Examples Of The Cobra Effect
Photo:  West Midlands Police/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

America's war on drugs began in earnest in 1971, when Richard Nixon declared drug abuse "public enemy number one." Intended to suppress the illegal drug trade, the WOD backfired similarly to prohibition, but with wider-reaching consequences.

Not only did it create a permanent underclass by making drug crimes a federal offense, thus stripping offenders of voting rights and removing opportunities for education and employment. On the bright side, it's fueled cartel violence in Mexican countries!

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The Blowback in Afghanistan
The Blowback in Afghanis... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Most Ironic Examples Of The Cobra Effect
Photo: Hamid Mir/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

In the early '80s, the CIA funded something called MAK, short for Maktab al-Khidamar, a group that funneled money, arms, and fighters from the outside world into the Afghan war against the then-Soviet Union. America does this all the time. The US backed up Stalin in WWII, and Lon Nol in the Cold War, but never has a situation exacerbated so poorly as what happened in the Middle East.

The short version of this story is that bin Laden's money gave him prominence on the Afghan scene and he used that star power to turn his fighters against the US, bringing America into the war in the Middle East.
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