The law of unintended consequences, so widely appreciated in economics, applies no less to a government’s conduct of foreign policy. The law grows out of the fact that highly complex situations cannot be fully grasped by one person or group, especially when human action is involved. Too many unpredictable elements stand ready to upset the expectations of would-be social engineers, the “men of system,” who rarely learn that lesson.

Adam Smith captured this well in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

“The man of system . . . is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. . . . He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon the chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own . . . .”


In foreign affairs, one manifestation of the law of unintended consequences is known as “blowback.” In his book by that title, Chalmers Johnson wrote, “The term ‘blowback,’ which officials of the Central Intelligent Agency first invented for their own internal use, . . . refers to the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people. What the daily press reports as the malign act of ‘terrorists’ or ‘drug lords’ or ‘rogue states’ or ‘illegal arms merchants’ often turn out to be blowback from earlier American operations.”

Blowback occurs when a foreign recipient of U.S. government largess and prestige acts against his former patron’s wishes or directly attacks American interests. Today the headlines are dominated by two such people: Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Osama bin Laden. Hussein was a friendly beneficiary of American assistance in the 1980s, when he was at war with Iran. Bin Laden had the same status when he was helping the Afghans repel the Soviet invaders during the same decade. It is no coincidence that, according to the U.S. government, these are now America’s most fearsome enemies. Blowback can also result from foreign hatred of the United States generated by its numerous interventions into the affairs of other nations. One manifestation of such hatred is terrorist attacks on U.S. targets.

Blowback, while often bringing horrible consequences—witness 9/11—also has its useful side for policymakers. The resulting crises furnish excellent justifications for the government’s acquisition of new powers over its citizens. Consult any newspaper for details.