The Seen, the Unseen, War, and Peace
Economists and libertarians often argue that foolish policies prevail because the benefits of government action are more visible than the costs. To bolster their point, many reference Bastiat’s classic essay, “What Is Seen and What is Not Seen.” Here’s how Bastiat puts it:
In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces
not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the
first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.
Yet this difference is tremendous; for it almost always happens that
when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are
disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist
pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to
come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the
risk of a small present evil.
I’ve loved this essay and line of argument for years. But lately I’ve noticed an elephantine counter-example: war. The immediate, visible consequences of war are horrifying. I wouldn’t even bother with a supporting quotation if Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front weren’t so eloquent:
On the next floor below are the abdominal and spine cases, head wounds and double amputations. On the right side of the wing are the jaw wounds, gas cases, nose, ear, and neck wounds. On the left the blind and the lung wounds, pelvis wounds, wounds in the joints, wounds in the testicles, wounds in the intestines. Here a man realizes for the first time how many places a man can get hit.
A man cannot realize that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round. And this is only one hospital, one single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must all be lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.
If people judged war purely on the basis of its obvious, immediate consequences, then, pacifism would be almost universal. To sell war, you’ve got to convince people that its non-obvious, distant consequences are positively fantastic. Contra Bastiat, though, it’s ridiculously easy to convince them of this. If you tell people that the skies will fall if their country doesn’t fight, they believe it – even though the worst case scenario is usually the loss of some territory most people can’t even find on a map.
My best explanation is that Bastiat’s seen/unseen fallacy is not a general psychological tendency. Instead, it’s an expression of anti-market bias: Since people dislike markets, they’re quick to dismiss claims about their hidden benefits. When people are favorably predisposed to an institution, however, they’re quite open to the possibility that it’s better than it looks to the naked eye. Government’s a good example, but so are religion, medicine, and education.
When it comes to the unseen benefits of war, there’s actually a perfect storm of irrationality. Not only do people like government, the institution responsible for running the war. Support for war also neatly coheres with the public’s anti-foreign bias. If someone announces that killing a bunch of weirdos in another country will save the motherland and cure bad breath, we’re inclined to believe him – even if ghastly scenes from Erich Maria Remarque are right in front of our faces.