What Is Not Seen

The noted 19th century French economist Frederic Bastiat wrote, among his several works completed before his untimely death due to consumption, an insightful work called “That Which Is Seen, And That Which Is Not Seen.”  This particular work was written in order to help the reading public of his time (and afterward) understand the importance of understanding that not all effects or consequences of behavior are visible.  The classic example of this is the excuse that a vandal who breaks a shop window does the economy a favor because it leads to an increase in consumption by giving business to a glazier, when instead it decreases economic consumption by keeping the shopkeeper from buying something else, like a pair of shoes, and to waste resources merely to get back to where he was before the vandal’s efforts.  Obviously, this sort of discussion requires some imagination on the part of readers in order to understand, so I thought it would be worthwhile to talk about the sorts of things that are not seen in our world and how they can be of vital importance.

Perhaps the most poignant example of things that are not seen are the people or their descendants who have been snuffed out by horrors like abortion or the holocaust or the gulag.  Some six or seven million Ukrainians died in the man-made famine of the 1930’s that Stalin used to increase his control over the Soviet Union, roughly six or seven million Jews (and millions of others) were killed in the German concentration camps.  Tens of millions of people died in Soviet gulags and Chinese Laogai that were established during their brutal communist rule.  And so it goes.  In the United States, some estimates [1] are that around 60 million children have died of abortions since they became legal in the United States as a result of Roe vs. Wade.  When we examine the world that is, it is important to ponder the impact of the people that are not seen because of the violence that has killed them.

It is interesting to note that among the arguments used to support more open immigration policies is the supposed need for the United States to have a lot more people working in order to support various social programs like Medicare and Social Security.  Of course, if we had fewer abortions, we would have more working age people, and have no need of anything except for our own natural increase to provide for any needed increase in population to preserve entitlements.  The decline of the birthrate of the United States starting in the 1970’s due to legal abortion exacerbated, and perhaps even created, the demographic problems that threaten old-age benefits in the nation, and it would be a rich and fitting irony if the generation that selfishly insisted on the right to infanticide should pay the price for having removed so many potential productive lives from our society.  Unfortunately, there are quite a few relatively innocent people that will likely suffer too from that which is not seen in terms of the people born between 1973 and today that would have been born had their existence not been snuffed out in the womb.

Opportunity costs are a hard thing for people to see.  It is hard for us to understand how it is that things could have been different if certain circumstances were changed.  How would our world be different, for example, if the Armenian genocide hadn’t have happened, or the Atlantic or Muslim slave trade, or the destruction of the Mongol invasions of the 13th century?  What about the Black Death, or the smallpox that helped kill roughly 9/10 of the population of the Americas in the period after European discovery and settlement of the Americas began in the late 15th century?  What about the genocide of the Dzhungars by China in the eighteenth century?  To see what exists in our world is hard enough given the many ways that we simply do not see what could have been differently because we don’t often pay attention to what happened.  That which is has been profoundly shaped by that which happened in the past, by the decisions that were made, by the deaths that removed certain people from the earth and opened up space for others.

It is perhaps unsurprising that one of the few places that what is not seen can be seen comes about in movies.  Quite a few movies rely for their poignancy on the distance between what is and what could have been.  “It’s A Wonderful Life,” points out what would have happened had the lead character never been born, with some dramatic and painful consequences for others.  “Family Man” and other films like it point out the changes that would have happened had settled down with a partner as opposed to living a lonely life.  I know I myself think about what could have happened in my life to have changed its course, that would have made it less isolated and less lonely than it has been, so this is definitely something that hits close to me as well.  With every decision that is made or every crossroads that is avoided or taken there come consequences and repercussions, and to see what could have been as opposed to what is, and to see what could be, are difficult skills for us to master, seeing as we have enough difficulty understanding reality, much less counterfactual scenarios.

[1] https://www.lifenews.com/2018/01/18/60069971-abortions-in-america-since-roe-v-wade-in-1973/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to What Is Not Seen

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    A basic economical principle is opportunity cost–one’s choice comes at the price of something else. And such is true in life. Every action brings about reaction. The human experience is fraught with a history of short-term expedience which beget awful long-term consequences. The innocent reap the terrible harvest of seeds so carelessly and thoughtlessly sown. As a result, our humanity and very existence are at stake.

  2. Catharine Martin says:

    This makes me think of Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road not Taken.” He weighed his options between two paths in the woods; one was pristine and the other was well-worn. He describes them both “that morning [they] both equally lay, in leaves no one had trodden black.” He mulled his decision over and over: “day after day… I doubt if I should ever go back. I shall be saying this with a sigh; two road diverged in a wood and I; I chose the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” We are left wondering if his musings and sigh were of regret, relief or curiosity about where the other road would have led him. But he understood the principle of opportunity cost and chose accordingly. We–unwittingly or not–apply it when faced with an either/or situation. I just wish that we had enough foresight to choose according to the long-range benefit instead of that which appeases the immediate one.

    • It is very hard to know the future, and we human beings do not predict very well. Even when we act with the long-term in mind, it is not always clear how secure that understanding of one’s long-term interests is the best, although human beings clearly make decisions for short-term reasons that predictably fail.

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