One of the most profound essays in human history was written in July, 1850 by Frederic Bastiat. In it, he discusses the dangers of the human tendency to react strongly to what we see right in front of our eyes, without stopping to consider what might be happening beyond our immediate perception.
Ever since the pandemic started, I’ve often thought about this. The raw numbers of those tested, those infected, those hospitalized, those who have died, are easy to see. The knee-jerk reactions, “social distancing,” “lockdowns,” and mandating the shutdown of most of society, have far-reaching and disastrous effects, but those effects are not as easy to see.
At first, anyway.
But as people are dying because of the virus, people are also dying, people’s lives are being damaged and destroyed, because of the knee-jerk reaction to the virus. Lip service is given to balancing those two opposite poles, but that lip service always runs into the hideous “Precautionary Principle” — “If we save just one life . . .” That sounds noble and wise. Most of the human evils we encounter result from somebody, somewhere, deciding that something is noble and wise.
In the department of economy, an act, a habit, an institution, a law, gives birth not only to an effect, but to a series of effects. Of these effects, the first only is immediate; it manifests itself simultaneously with its cause — it is seen. The others unfold in succession — they are not seen: it is well for us, if they are foreseen. Between a good and a bad economist this constitutes the whole difference — 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. Now 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.
In fact, it is the same in the science of health, arts, and in that of morals. It often happens, that the sweeter the first fruit of a habit is, the more bitter are the consequences. Take, for example, debauchery, idleness, prodigality. When, therefore, a man 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.
This explains the fatally grievous condition of mankind. Ignorance surrounds its cradle: then its actions are determined by their first consequences, the only ones which, in its first stage, it can see. It is only in the long run that it learns to take account of the others. It has to learn this lesson from two very different masters — experience and foresight. Experience teaches effectually, but brutally. It makes us acquainted with all the effects of an action, by causing us to feel them; and we cannot fail to finish by knowing that fire burns, if we have burned ourselves. For this rough teacher, I should like, if possible, to substitute a more gentle one. I mean Foresight. For this purpose I shall examine the consequences of certain economical phenomena, by placing in opposition to each other those which are seen, and those which are not seen.