Unanticipated Consequences

Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury from 1804-1815.

In 1807, Congress passed the Embargo Act at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson. The Embargo Act “prohibited the departure of all American ships in international trade.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 649. Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin doubted the effectiveness of the embargo on preventing the oncoming confrontation with the battling European behemoths of France and England. Id. at 650. Gallatin predicted that the embargo could result in “privations, sufferings, revenue, effect on the enemy, [and] politics at home . . . .” Id.

Gallatin advocated for war, rather than the embargo. Id. at 651. He realized one of the greatest truths of government: “momentous actions by governments often had unanticipated consequences.” Id. In support of that point, he told President Jefferson that “governmental prohibitions do always more mischief than had been calculated; and it is not without much hesitation that a statesman should hazard to regulate the concerns of individuals as if he could do it better than themselves.” Id. quoting Gallatin to Thomas Jefferson, 18 Dec. 1807, in Henry Adams, ed., The Writings of Albert Gallatin (Philadelphia, 1879), 1: 368.

Gallatin’s prescient words were wise at the time, as the embargo precipitated the War of 1812. However, his words also ring true throughout history. There are numerous examples throughout American history where momentous decisions led America down a path of unexpected, and often avoidable, consequences. Some may look to the 20th Century and 21st Century’s Wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

There have been even more recent exemplifications of this principle. Most recently, Western Europe and the United States imposed economic sanctions on Russia. It was a momentous decision with unanticipated consequences: the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine.

Leaders, American and otherwise, should heed the words of Gallatin. Momentous decisions are inevitable, and not all consequences are knowable, but where consequences are predictable, leaders should be aware of the potential for mitigating the negative effects of those momentous decisions.

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