Bastiat's Insight on Government Inaction
By David Henderson
I’ve noticed in discussions–in person, on Facebook, and in blogs–how hard it is for most people to see that opposition to having the government subsidize or require activity X does not mean that one opposes activity X.
Frederic Bastiat addressed this in his classic article, “What is Seen and What Is Not Seen.” He wrote [Paragraph 1.63]:
But, by an inference as false as it is unjust, do you know what the economists are now accused of? When we oppose subsidies, we are charged with opposing the very thing that it was proposed to subsidize and of being the enemies of all kinds of activity, because we want these activities to be voluntary and to seek their proper reward in themselves. Thus, if we ask that the state not intervene, by taxation, in religious matters, we are atheists. If we ask that the state not intervene, by taxation, in education, then we hate enlightenment. If we say that the state should not give, by taxation, an artificial value to land or to some branch of industry, then we are the enemies of property and of labor. If we think that the state should not subsidize artists, we are barbarians who judge the arts useless.
When I teach this article in class, I ask the students, who are almost all American, how many of them favor having government subsidize religion or requiring that people be religious. Typically no one raises his hand. Then I say:
Wow! That’s really something. I’m going to go home tonight and say to my wife, “Babes, I have a class of 25 people and all of them are atheists.” Did I get that right? Am I leaving something out?
Of course, they tell me what I left out and many of them look at me as if I’m an idiot. Why? Because it’s obvious to them that one can be strongly religious, as many of them are, and yet strongly object to government promotion of religion.
What’s interesting is that they’re like most people in the sense that they don’t generalize from the “obvious” case of religion.” So what I try to do is get them to see how general this principle is. One can strongly object to the use of illegal drugs and yet think they should be legal. One can strongly object to U.S. taxpayers being forced to subsidize Israel’s government without being “anti-Israel.” One can strongly object to someone burning the American flag and yet think that they have the right to do what they wish with their own property. One can strongly object to racial discrimination and yet think that people should be free to discriminate. One can strongly object to gays getting married and yet think that gay people should be free to marry. Etc.