Tag Archives: Frédéric Bastiat

Seeing the Unseen

Last week on my Facebook page I posted what I described at the time as a “sincerely offered thought experiment for my friends who support socialism.” The post generated a number of responses. Some good, other less so.

A consistent criticism was that the post was the post assumed what one comment called a “dishonest dichotomy” based as it was on what the author characterized as a series of “leading question(s)” that all assume (as another comment has it) a particular definition of socialism. As the author of the second comment writes:

by inviting “socialists” to explain why they’d be comfortable “giving up freedoms” to do certain things, you are implicitly assigning that definition. And it’s a rather patently obvious strawman: by making this socialist bogeyman you’re drawing up the rules of engagement to begin with.

Here I need to pause and point out that sacrifice is built into the nature of our economic life.

Apologists for socialism, as well as their free market counterparts, tend to frame arguments in terms of gain. The socialist (or the social democrat) will offer new entitlements such as “universal health care” or “free college tuition” while downplaying the actual financial costs of these programs.

On the free market side, one hears about how in a free exchange both parties are better off and that such exchanges create wealth. But here as well, there is a tendency to downplay the costs of a system of free exchange. I’m think here especially of the economic dislocations that happen when, for example, jobs move overseas.

To be sure there are, in the long term, benefits to say cheaper consumer goods. So too with freeing up capital for new investment.

The same with innovations in manufacturing or technology. Increased efficiency means an overall higher standard of living. But, again, what is the cost?

As one insightful comment had it my original post is

akin to a “thought experiment” for those who support capitalism to name those corporations whom they would like to exploit, monetize, and micromanage them, down to timing your bathroom breaks.

To which I answered, yes. It is very much like that and this question is fair and one which free market advocates must answer. What do we do when actors in the market engage in legal but morally dubious or unintentionally socially harmful behavior?

What unites this question and the questions I posed (see below) is that, in both cases, we can with the best of intentions act in a ways that compromises the freedom of others.

One of the questions I came back to several times with my Facebook conversation partners is whether we are discussing socialism or a social democracy with a robust safe net, what happens to those who disagree? With those who, for whatever reason, wish to opt out?

Think for example, of what happened when the Obama administration required employers to provide health insurance that included abortion and contraception coverage. A number of business owners and non-profits objected on moral grounds to do so.

As a result they faced the unenviable choice of (1) paying for services that violated their conscience, (2) face ruinous financial fines for refusing to comply with the law, (3) bearing the financial and social cost of a lawsuit against the government.

These costs are every bit as real, and ever bit as forced by circumstances, as those paid by low skill workers who find their bathroom breaks being timed by their employers.

The free market is not always as free as apologists imagine even as socialism or social democracy are not as pro-social as their apologists would have us believe.

In both cases. there are (as Bastiat reminds us) consequences or costs both seen and unseen to any policy or economic system. And so his caution that when a person is “absorbed in the effect which is seen has not yet learned to discern those which are not seen, he gives way to fatal habits, not only by inclination, but by calculation.”

As he concludes “Let us accustom ourselves, then, to avoid judging of things by what is seen only, but to judge of them by that which is not seen.” Why?


The sophism of the Socialists on this point is showing to the public what it pays to the intermediates in exchange for their services, and concealing from it what is necessary to be paid to the State. Here is the usual conflict between what is before our eyes, and what is perceptible to the mind only, between what is seen, and what is not seen.

To this we could, and should, add for example the externalities of international trade or technological innovations.

But there are also costs for advances in medical care, greater rights for women and minorities. These too are part of the “unseen” of the free market. To say that there are costs with the greater liberalization of society, doesn’t mean we should reject the greater freedom. Rather it means we must be even more intentional and clearer about what it means to be free.

All exchanges have costs. Not only financial but social and personal. These are to our economic life what friction is to the physical world. In both cases, they slow us down. But it is here, in the social friction of our economic life that we can see the potential value of Orthodox Social Thought.

With her long history and especially here sacramental vision and eschatological orientation, the Church can bring to our attention what is often unseen in the market place. This includes not only giving a voice to those who don’t share in the material wealth the market generates but also of the broader, moral and spiritual costs to those who do.

“Between a good and a bad economist this constitutes the whole difference,” Bastiat says, “the one takes account of the visible effect; the other takes account both of the effects which are seen, and also of those which it is necessary to foresee.” The good economist must do so because “this difference is enormous, for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favourable, the ultimate consequences are fatal, and the converse. Hence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good, which will be followed by a great evil to come, while the true economist pursues a great good to come, — at the risk of a small present evil.”

My argument is that the Church must bring to light not only the seen but the unseen. The Christian must attend to those costs which accrue to even morally good, prudent, and just actions whether by the State or private persons acting individually or in concert.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Facebook Question:

A sincerely offered thought experiment for my friends who support socialism.

Would you be willing to move to Madison, work for a living and give me final say in all your economic decisions?

These would “major” decisions like what job you held and fir what wage. In addition to this, I would say where you could live and whether or not you owned a car or used mass transit.

It would also include”minor” decision like what you could purchase at the grocery store. Not only would I determine the quantity of your purchases but quality and schedule of what you bought.

If you would do this, why would you give me this authority?

If you wouldn’t, why wouldn’t you and why would you give similar authority to the State?