The Consequences of the four pests campaign

By Rachel Knibbe

 In Pierson's book Politics in Time, he describes the limits of institutional design. These limitations have implications for theories of institutional origins and change. On of the problems is that political actors usually have short-time horizons, while their actions have short and long-term effects. The institutions are not designed in a way that the long-term outcomes that are produced are functional due to short-term political reasons.

The four pests campaign of Mao illustrates this limit to institutional design. During the Great Leap Forward he introduced a new hygiene initiative, which targeted sparrows. Sparrows were considered a pest since they ate all the grain of the land, which was need by the farmers. Mao implemented a policy that ordered the entire sparrow population to be culled so the crops could not no longer be damaged. Moreover, the sparrows did not only eat crops, they also ate grasshoppers. Due to the culling of the sparrows, grasshoppers were no longer eaten. Consequently, they ate all the crops. This can be seen as a long-term effect, due to the culling of the majority of the sparrows, the grasshoppers stayed dominant. This had an unintended effect, which was starvation of the population.

Mao had a small time horizon, by implementing the culling of sparrows he only considered the effects it would have on the grain. However, it turned out that the long-term consequences had a more negative effect than the original situation. This is an unintended long-term consequence and this is due to the social complexity that creates interaction effects.

Hence, when designing institutions there will always be some sort of uncertainty may it be long-term effect or interaction effects. This means that corrections need to be implemented in reaction to these effects. This can only be done when thinking of institutional development as a process unfolding over time.