Reflect on Bastiat’s “The Seen and the Unseen”

Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) is rightly celebrated for his still unrivaled skill in communicating key economic insights to the general public with clarity and intelligence. Among his most famous and effective efforts along these lines is his 1850 pamphlet Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas – ‘what we see and what we don’t see’, or translated into English generally as ‘what is seen’ And what is not seen.” Government policy could be greatly improved if more people and politicians of good will read this wonderful work, which was not very long.

The basic idea of ​​“seen and unseen” is that when people think about the advantages and disadvantages of economic measures, or government interventions, they often ignore the bulk of the consequences of actions and interventions. The booklet’s opening paragraphs are clearly the subject:

In the field of economics, an act, habit, institution or law generates not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, only the former is immediate; It is detected in conjunction with its cause, it’s visible. Others just happen in a row, they didn’t see; We are lucky if we anticipation they.

The whole difference between bad and good economics is obvious here. The bad depends on Visible influence while the good takes into account both the influence that one can have We see Among these, one must anticipation.

However, the difference between them is huge, because it always happens that when the immediate outcome is favourable, the subsequent consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. It follows that a bad economist will seek a small present benefit followed by a large future defect, while a true economist will seek a large future benefit in the face of the risk of suffering a small defect immediately.

The truth cannot be seriously denied. Economic actions and government interventions lead to dire consequences that people (and thus politicians) ignore. It is undeniable that this ignorance of the unseen consequences promotes bad government policies. Well-meaning people who do not see the full range of consequences of interventions often call for government actions they would not demand if they “see” more consequences, while cunning and corrupt people cruelly exploit fellow citizens by exploiting them well. – which means people are blinded by unseen consequences.

From pointing out the invisible harms to almost all consumers (and to most workers) of tariffs, to tracking the largely harmful consequences of creating excessive money and financing deficits in government budgets, there is no duty of the economist as important as to identify the consequences that are , until then, invisible, and disclosed to the public.

However, for all his unquestionable brilliance, Bastiat himself missed a fact that should be revealed. Bastiat’s oversight is not a huge mistake. It’s hardly a flaw. The insight into his article continues on the inspiration and importance of radiation. However, he missed something worth pointing out.

Specifically, Bastiat misses the fact that many of the consequences he identifies as “seen” are often just as invisible as the innumerable consequences he identifies as “invisible”. The vast majority of the population regularly and immediately “sees” a small handful of unseen results while missing most of the others.

Bastiat’s famous account of the broken window, which was given near the beginning of his famous essay, begins:

Have you ever witnessed the wrath of the good bourgeois Jack Bonhomme when his horrible son managed to break the window? If you have watched this spectacle, you will surely notice that all the spectators, even if they are thirty in number, seem to have mutually agreed to offer the unfortunate owner the unified piece of consolation: “Goodness comes out of everything. Such accidents keep production moving. Must Everyone has to live. What will happen to the glass if no glass is ever broken?”

Bastiat then correctly explains that, contrary to the erroneous assertions of onlookers, Mr. Bonhomme did not become poorer by the wreckage of his reckless son, but rather that society in general had become poorer.

Note, however, that the effects that Bastiat identifies as I have seen Specifically, the benefits to the glass and their suppliers of Mr. Bonhomme spending money to replace his broken window – are in fact Not We have already seen. Spectators who assured M. Bonhomme that his son had inadvertently done society a favor by urging him to literally buy a replacement window We see Only that window has shattered. These onlookers don’t actually do that We see Glass buys supplies and puts in business to replace the window. Spectators use instead the reason to me Risksin this case correctly, the positive effects of a broken window on the actions and well-being of glass and its suppliers.

Likewise with protective tariffs. When changes in tariff rates are discussed, well-meaning proponents of higher tariffs actually do not We see Consumers respond to import tariffs by shifting more of their purchases to domestically produced substitutes. Supporters use their own tariff the reason to me Risks The correct conclusion is that higher tariffs will artificially increase employment in those domestic industries that compete with tariffed imports.

In short, the economic consequences that Bastiat identifies as ‘invisible’ differ not so much as we might suppose from those he identifies as ‘visible’. Both Combinations of consequences can only be seen through the human mind. And so the question becomes: Why is the human mind so easily exposed even to people uneducated in economics? some Unseen but real consequences, while routinely failing to reveal to others?

One possible answer is that people consider each cause to have only one or two effects, making any thought pointless about further consequences of broken windows other than noticing its effect on the dealer offering the alternative. But this possibility seems unlikely. We all agree when we are reminded that the road to hell is often paved with good intentions, and in our personal lives our very survival requires that each of us regularly explains consequences beyond those that occur for the first time.

People have short attention spans about things beyond those that affect them personally or over which they have no personal control. Therefore, on matters of public policy, people are attentive enough to conclude that the shopkeeper whose window is broken will most likely be replaced and that the merchant from whom the shopkeeper buys the replacement window is better off. But after coming to this conclusion, people get bored and don’t think about it any more.

There is no clear explanation as to why many people regularly and expertly use their reason to ‘see’ and infer some economic consequence, but have great difficulty using the same powers of reason to ‘see’ other consequences which are no less realistic or important than the consequences of that. an act “We see.” Whatever the correct interpretation, fixing it may provide a constructive idea to help those of us who use the economic way of thinking to make a better argument against grassroots government interventions. The negative consequences remain today, as in the days of Bastiat, invisible to many people.

Donald J. Boudreau

Donald J. Boudreau

Donald J. Boudreaux is a Senior Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research and with the FA Hayek Program for Advanced Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at George Mason University’s Mercatos Center. Member of the Board of Directors of the Mercatos Center; He is professor of economics and former chair of the economics department at George Mason University. He is the author of books Basic Hayek, GlobalizationAnd the Hypocrites and half-intelligenceHis articles appear in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York TimesAnd the US News & World Report In addition to many scientific journals. He writes a blog on behalf of Cafe Hayek and a regular column on economics for Pittsburgh Tribune review. Boudreaux holds a doctorate in economics from Auburn University and a law degree from the University of Virginia.

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