What’s worse than horse slaughter?

When it comes to government action, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Hold down gasoline prices to help motorists, and you create shortages. Punish landlords to protect tenants, and apartments get harder to find. Invade Iraq to spread freedom, and you get civil war.

Likewise, a change that may look harmful can serve benevolent purposes. Take the law just signed in Oklahoma to legalize the slaughter of horses for food. Counterintuitive though it may be, it will probably work to the ultimate benefit of horses.

Starting in 2006, Congress tried to end the killing of horses in the United States for meat by barring funds for federal inspection of the facilities where they were processed. The following year, Texas and Illinois forced the closing of the last plants doing this sort of work.

The motivating sentiments were obvious. Americans have had a longstanding romance with horses, even if most of us never ride. We don’t eat them, and we don’t understand foreigners who do — I’m looking at you, France. We prefer that these noble beasts be treated with respect and affection. Killing them for the platter is as repugnant as dining on roast beagle.

But improving the welfare of these animals is not as easy as passing laws. By effectively outlawing slaughterhouses, our governments actually induced more mistreatment of horses.

How so? Horses don’t live forever, and they rarely have the luxury of expiring in their sleep, surrounded by their loved ones. When one is old or injured or ill-tempered, the proprietor may not want the expense of feeding, housing and medicating it.

Owners can turn their livestock over to horse rescue operations, which will take care of them. But these services have trouble keeping up with the need. Horses can also be professionally euthanized, but that can cost upward of $200 each, not to mention more hundreds to dispose of the carcass.

Selling the beasts at auction — often to buyers who will send them to slaughter — used to be an option, allowing owners to turn a cost into a few hundred dollars in income. But the demise of slaughterhouses reduced the demand for low-quality horses, cutting the price sellers could get.

It would be nice if owners would either keep their old nags or have them put down. But that isn’t always how things go. Horses are still being sold to be converted to table fare.

The number of horses destined for this fate, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, was about the same in 2010 as it was before the ban. It’s just that the slaughterhouses are now in Mexico or Canada, which still allow them.