The Power of Bastiat's Unseen
By David Henderson
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.
There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.
These are the famous two opening paragraphs of my favorite article by early to mid-19th century economist and educator Frederic Bastiat. The article is titled “What is Seen and What is Not Seen.” For about the last 20 years of my teaching career, I spent time on this article at the start of every economics class I taught.
Recently I realized the power of the unseen in thinking about my work life. Now that I’m retired, I do even more free-lance work than I did when I was an employee. Because of a particular incident that happened last week, I decided, after careful thought and conversations with one friend and my wife, to quit one of those activities. The seen was the output that I would have brought about in the world if I had continued and the payment net of tax that I would have received. The unseen, by definition, was harder to see. But just hours after contacting the person I was working with and saying that I didn’t want to continue, I felt a surge of energy. I started thinking about some of the projects I had been putting on the back burner for years: writing about my uncle’s being taken prisoner by a German raider ship during WWII and his heroic actions in the German prison camp; correcting the factual errors in my book The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and republishing it; putting together a book of my antiwar.com columns plus a few other pieces I’ve written on foreign policy; and putting together a book of my favorite articles and book reviews. And then there are the books that have piled up that I haven’t got around to reading. Plus maybe more pickleball.
The old cliche is that when one door closes, another one opens. I went on line to find it just now and, lo and behold, here is the whole quote from Alexander Graham Bell and it’s even better:
When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.
I haven’t looked long and regretfully. It happened quite quickly. Although part of the reason, of course, is that I am the one who closed the first door.