Date: 29 May, 2020
“In the sphere of economics an action, a habit, an institution, or a law engenders not just one effect but a series of effects. Of these effects only the first is immediate; it is revealed simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The others merely occur successively; they are not seen; we are lucky if we foresee them.”
Bastiat, Introduction to WSWNS (1850)
The sole object which I have in mind is to get the reader to understand that in all public expenditure behind the apparent good there is harm which is much more difficult to see. To the extent that I can I would like to get him/her into the habit of seeing the one (as well as) the other and to take both of them into account.
Bastiat, chap. X Algeria, WSWNS (1850)
In his last major work, What is Seen and What is Not Seen (henceforth WSWNS) which he wrote over the summer of 1850, Bastiat explores in considerable detail one of his most original and important economic insights, what today we would call “opportunity cost.”
His idea of “the seen” (ce qu’on voit) and “the unseen” (ce qu’on ne voit pas) had been very dear to him since he first began exploring it as early as 1837, well before he moved to Paris to join the circle of political economists around the Guillaumin publishing firm in 1846. When he realized his time was running out as his throat cancer worsened he agonized over the final form the presentation of his idea would take. His French editor Prosper Paillottet tells us that Bastiat had begun writing it in 1849 but was unhappy with its tone and ended up writing it three times from scratch. He had had a similar problem with his two volumes of essays known as the Economic Sophisms (1846, 1848) as he oscillated between avoiding the “dryness and aridity” of standard economic writing and avoiding the excesses of his biting sarcasm, wit, and penchant for story telling which was his natural journalistic style. I will leave it up to the reader to make up their own mind whether or not Bastiat succeeded in doing this in WSWNS.
The end result is a work with 12 short chapters which uses the concept of “the seen” and “the unseen” to explore some of the most pressing economic problems of his day, which included things like demobilizing large numbers of troops, state funding of the arts, tariff protection for certain domestic industries, the unemployment caused by the introduction of machinery into factories, the provision of credit by state banks, spending on the Algerian colony, and the idea of state provided and guaranteed jobs for the unemployed. Bastiat thought the application of these concepts was so important to the understanding of economics that he subtitled his book “Political Economy in One Lesson.” He would also make these concepts an important part of his unfinished treatise on political economy, Economic Harmonies on which he was working at the same time as he was writing WSWNS.
In the opening paragraphs of the book Bastiat explains his insight as follows:
Dans la sphère économique, un acte, une habitude, une institution, une loi n’engendrent pas seulement un effet, mais une série d’effets. De ces effets, le premier seul est immédiat; il se manifeste simultanément avec sa cause, on le voit. Les autres ne se déroulent que successivement, on ne les voit pas; heureux si on les prévoit.
Entre un mauvais et un bon Économiste, voici toute la différence: l’un s’en tient à l’effet visible; l’autre tient compte et de l’effet qu’on voit et de ceux qu’il faut prévoir.
In the sphere of economics an action, a habit, an institution, or a law engenders not just one effect but a series of effects. Of these effects only the first is immediate; it is revealed simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The others merely occur successively; they are not seen; we are lucky if we foresee them.
The entire difference between a bad and a good Economist is apparent here. A bad one relies on the visible effect, while the good one takes account both of the effect one can see and of those one must foresee.
The essence of his theory can be summarized as follows:
“I do not hold that he was a bad theorist. I hold that he was no theorist.”
Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis (1954)
It was Bastiat’s profound hope that his book WSWNS would result in more people becoming “good economists” who could “see” or “foresee” the “unseen.” However, this hope did not eventuate until much later after his death in 1850. The economics profession has not been kind to Bastiat, as almost all of them have dismissed his contributions to economic theory. Most damning, although fairly typical, was Schumpeter who in his massive history of economic thought published in 1954 stated that “I do not hold that he was a bad theorist. I hold that he was no theorist.”). Even someone as sympathetic to the free market as Friedrich Hayek downplays or ignores Bastiat’s contributions to economic theory, although he does admit that his insights in WSWNS were both “clear” and “decisive”. On the one hand he states that:
No one has ever stated more clearly in a single phrase the central difficulty of a rational economic policy and, I would like to add, the decisive argument for economic freedom. It is the idea compressed into these few words that made me use the word “genius” in the opening sentence (“a publicist of genius”). It is indeed a text around which one might expound a whole system of libertarian economic policy.
Yet, on the other hand, Hayek implies that, given what he had written up until his death, Bastiat was yet to make any “real contribution to (economic) science.” This is a judgement which I would strongly dispute. In contrast to Hayek, Anthony de Jasay, thinks that Bastiat’s understanding of “opportunity cost,” as expressed in the idea of “the seen” and “the unseen,” was both original and very important in theoretical terms. He in fact credits Bastiat for inventing the idea of “opportunity cost”:
he anticipated the concept of opportunity cost and was, to my knowledge, the first economist ever to use and explain it.
There are many more economists today who are ready to acknowledge Bastiat’s theoretical contributions to economics, most notably some Austrians for his pioneering work on human action and subjective value theory, and some Public Choice economists for his insights into the self-interested behaviour of bureaucrats and politics, as well as the nature of the state itself.
“What does the state do? It puts a blindfold over our eyes.“
Bastiat, ”Damned Money!” (1849).
The vocabulary Bastiat developed to describe his key insights was very rich, carefully chosen, and was unique to him. We have tried to show this richness by quoting the French version wherever possible either in the form of shorter phrases or in side-by-side English and French versions of the longer quotations. Bastiat was a great wordsmith who liked to make plays on words, such as puns, and to make allusions which only make sense in the original French. This makes translating his work difficult at times. He also developed his very own “rhetoric of liberty” in order to persuade others of the soundness of his views about the free market and which made his economic journalism in works such as the “economic sophisms” such a delight to read.
To help define and explain each of his most important theoretical insights, such as “la spoliation” (plunder), “la classe” (class), “les causes perturbatrices et les causes réparatrices” (disturbing and restorative factors), “l’harmonie et la dissonance” (harmony and disharmony), and “l’action humaine” (human action), Bastiat developed what I call a “vocabulary cluster” of terms. For example, in the case of his theory of plunder (la spoliation) he had terms to describe in some detail things relating to the groups involved (the plundering class), the degree of plunder (partial or universal), its duration (transitory or permanent), the role of government (legal plunder), and its location (within the country or foreign).
He did the same with his theory of “the seen” and “the unseen” for which I have created another graphical depictdion of his “vocabulary cluster” and which I will briefly outline here. As he liked to do, Bastiat uses pairs of opposing words and concepts to make his arguments, such as the seen and the unseen, the visible and the invisible, the noticed and the unnoticed, things in the light and things in the shadows, the real world versus the unreal world of fictions and illusions and disguises, the close by and the distant, the immediate and the postponed or delayed, the hidden and the obvious, the direct and the indirect, being blind and being clear sighted, seeing only one side or all sides of an event, the deep and the superficial, the normal and the abnormal, the single event versus events which are linked in a chain or series, and of course the good economist who sees or foresees “the unseen” and the bad economist who does not.
A deep insight into the nature of economic activity lay at the heart of Bastiat’s notion of “the seen” and "the unseen”. This was the idea that economic activities were linked to each other by what he called “a series” or “a chain” (l’enchaînement) of interconnections.  What was immediately apparent or obvious to the observer of an economic event was something that was direct, immediate, close in time or space, on the surface of events, and thus visible, that is to say “the seen”. However, because economic actions were interconnected they had “flow on effects” which impinged upon others in the market. These effects were “hidden” in the sense that they could be indirect, delayed in time, further away in distance, take place at a deep level, and thus were “invisible’ or “unseen.” Bastiat thought that these latter hidden or unseen effects could and should be seen (or “foreseen”) by an intelligent and inquiring mind, one that had been trained in sound economic analysis, or what he called a “good economist”. In contrast, those who lacked such training could not or would not see “the unseen” and therefore he called them a “bad” or “superficial” economist.
There was also the serious problem of people who were prevented from “seeing” what was happening in the economy because they were deliberately lied to or “duped” by powerful vested interest groups (such as protected domestic manufacturers); or they were forced to wear ideological “blindfolds” because of what they had been taught in government schools (such as the focus on ancient Roman society which disdained productive labour and extolled the virtues of slavery and military conquest), or were persuaded by the powerful oratory of socialist critics who had been railing against the “injustice” of rent, interest, and profit in the press for over ten years leading up to the outbreak of the February Revolution of 1848. Bastiat wrote many of his “economic sophisms” in order to rip off the blindfolds which covered the eyes of these “dupes” who believed the economic “sophistry” which was being peddled by these groups. Thus, his concern with “the seen” and “the unseen” needs to be seen in the context of this more general critique.
The vocabulary Bastiat devised to explore the idea of “the seen” and “the unseen” can be divided into three groups: words he used to describe seeing and perceiving, not seeing and being deceived, and the “series” or “chains” of consequences which tied the economy together into an interconnected whole. This vocabulary, like his other ones, evolved over the short period between his coming to the attention of the Paris-based economists in late 1844 and his death at the end of 1850.
The terms used to describe “seeing” include the following:
The terms used to describe “not seeing” include the following:
The terms he used to describe the interconnectedness of economic activity and the various effects and consequences of an action, include the following:
And finally the two different kinds of economists:
One might summarise the different though related approaches to economic thinking of Adam Smith and Bastiat by saying that the former talked about markets being guided as if by “an invisible hand” whereas Bastiat wanted to expose the “invisible harm” caused by government intervention in those markets. The former wanted to show the beneficial effects of what was unseen (the hand of the market); whereas the latter wanted to show the harmful consequences of what was unseen when the government intervened.
“What perpetuates this regime, what makes it popular is that the benefit dazzles the eyes while the tax which makes it possible passes unnoticed.”
Bastiat, “On the Impact of the Protectionist Regime on Agriculture” (1846]
As is often the case with Bastiat, his changing use of terminology makes it hard to pin down exactly the first time he expressed this idea in his writing. The following are a selection of his early efforts to refine his thinking about “the seen” and “the unseen”. A very early usage is in “Human Labor and Domestic Labor” (c. 1845), where he argues against opponents of imported goods and the use of machines in factories by contrasting “leurs effets immédiats et transitoires” (their immediate and transitory effects) (which are seen to be harmful) and their “conséquences générales et définitives” (general and permanent consequences) (which are beneficial).
Another early use occurs in an essay he wrote at the end of 1846 "On the Impact of the Protectionist Regime on Agriculture” (Dec. 1846) in which he talks about tariffs as being “disguised taxes” and where the “benefits” dazzle the eyes but the taxes pass unnoticed (“le bénéfice crève les yeux, tandis que la cotisation qui le constitue passe inaperçue”). In early 1847 in the essay “Domination through Work” he talks about the “illusion” people have about the dangers of importing the products of foreign labour which he believes comes about because people do not see or appreciate a key thing, namely it saves them labour which they can devote to something else: “L’illusion provient de ce qu’on ne voit pas une chose” (the illusion comes about because one does not see something).
In early 1848 when he begins writing articles which will later be reworked and republished in his treatise Economic Harmonies (Jan. 1850) he quotes an insight made by Rousseau (someone he didn’t normally quote favourably) that it required a lot of thinking in order to see and understand the things that one was constantly surrounded by and took for granted.
Rousseau a dit: «Il faut beaucoup de philosophie pour observer les faits qui sont trop près de nous.»
Tels sont les phénomènes sociaux au milieu desquels nous vivons et nous nous mouvons. L’habitude nous a tellement familiarisés avec ces phénomènes, que nous n’y faisons plus attention, pour ainsi dire, à moins qu’ils n’aient quelque chose de brusque et d’anormal qui les impose à notre observation
Rousseau has said: “A great deal of philosophy is needed for us to take account of those facts that are too close to us.”
Such are the social phenomena in the midst of which we live and move. Habit has familiarized us with these phenomena to such an extent that we no longer pay attention to them, so to speak, unless something sudden and abnormal brings them to our notice.
In early 1849 in a long pamphlet called “Protectionism and Communism" in which he argued that the conservative support for protection was logically similar to the ideas for the redistribution of wealth being put forward by the communists, he makes the point that the immediate “profits” which seem to come from a protective tariff can be seen by “the naked eye” but the string of costs and losses which they bring in their train can only be see by “the inquiring eye of the mind”:
|Ce qui fait que l’opinion publique s’égare sur ce point, c’est que le Profit de la protection est visible à l’œil nu, tandis que des deux Pertes égales qu’elle entraîne, l’une se divise à l’infini entre tous les citoyens, et l’autre ne se montre qu’à l’œil investigateur de l’esprit.||
What causes public opinion to err on this point is that the profit due to protectionism is visible to the naked eye, whereas of the two equal losses it brings in its wake one is infinitely divided between the citizens and the other is visible only to the eye of an investigative mind.
Probably the first explicit use of the phrase “ce qu’on ne voit pas” (that which one doesn’t see) in the sense it came to have in his later writings (Economic Harmonies (Jan. 1850) and WSWNS (July 1850) was in an article “Laziness and Trade Restrictions” he wrote in January 1848 for the journal of the French Free Trade Association which he edited, Libre-Échange, pointing out the clear opportunity costs which this action imposes and which are “not seen” immediately:
|Si un homme d’État intervient et dit: « Nous allons exclure le produit étranger; tu le feras toi-même, et tes concitoyens te le payeront plus cher, afin de te déterminer au travail par l’appât d’un plus grand gain, » le résultat sera que tous ses concitoyens, payant le produit plus cher, seront moins riches d’autant, et favoriseront dans une moindre proportion des industries déjà existantes dans le pays. Tout ce qu’on aura fait, c’est d’encourager une forme de travail en en décourageant dix autres, et l’on ne voit pas alors comment le sacrifice atteint le but, qui est de détruire la paresse.||
If a politician steps in and says “We are going to ban the entry of foreign products; you will make them yourself and your fellow citizens will pay you more for it, in order to encourage you to work with the incentive of more money”, the result will be that all his fellow citizens will be less wealthy by the same amount, and will patronize to a lesser extent the industries which already exist in the country. All that will happen, is to encourage one form of labour by discouraging ten others, and one will not then see how this sacrifice will achieve its goal, which is to destroy laziness.
Thus the range of words he used before he settled on “ce qu’on voit” (that which one sees, or the seen) and “ce qu’on ne voit pas” (that which one does not see, or the unseen), probably at the beginning of 1848, is considerable, which makes tracking his changing usage problematical at times.
“You (communists) are like architects who quarrel over a monument, which they have seen from just one side. They do not see incorrectly, but they do not see everything. To make them agree, all you need is to persuade them to walk around the edifice.”
Bastiat, Chap. V “On Value”, EH (1850)
Before turning to the classic statement of his theory in the booklet WSWNS (July 1850) it should be noted that there were many references as well in his treatise Economic Harmonies, the first and unfinished edition of which appeared in January 1850 and an expanded posthumous edition which appeared in July 1851. I believe that the concept of “the unseen” plays a very important part in his treatise which has gone largely unrecognised (dare I say “unseen”?) by scholars. We have identified eleven instances of this principle being referred to directly and indirectly which we list below.
Here is a classic statement of the principle of opportunity cost, where the invervention of the state causes losses and distortions by causing exchanges to be made (which are “seen”) that would never have taken place in its absence, and prevented other exchanges that would have been made (which are “not seen”).
|Soit que cette intervention de la Force dans les échanges en provoque qui ne se seraient pas faits, ou en prévienne qui se seraient accomplis, il ne se peut pas qu’elle n’occasionne tout à la fois Déperdition et Déplacement de travail et de capitaux, et par suite perturbation dans la manière dont la population se serait naturellement distribuée.||
Whether the intervention of the power (of the state) in exchanges stimulates some exchanges that would never have been made, or prevents some that would have been made, it cannot fail to cause the simultaneous loss or displacement of labor and capital, and consequently a disturbance in the way that populations are naturally distributed.
|FEE: Whether this intervention of force in the process of exchange creates exchanges that otherwise would not be made or prevents others from being made, it cannot fail to result in the waste and misuse of labor and capital, and consequently in the disturbance of the natural distribution of population. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/79#Bastiat_0187_565|
Bastiat reprimands the communists who wish to restructure the economy so there is a “community of goods” by comparing them to architects arguing about the merits of a statue, each one of which has only looked at one side of it. It is not that they do not see what is before them, but they do not see the whole of the statue. To do that they need to walk around it to see the bigger picture. The communists, he argues, do the same thing with the economy.
Communistes, vous rêvez la communauté. Vous l’avez. L’ordre social rend toutes les utilités communes, à la condition que l’échange des valeurs appropriées soit libre.
Vous ressemblez à des architectes qui disputent sur un monument, dont chacun n’a observé qu’une face. Ils ne voient pas mal, mais ils ne voient pas tout. Pour les mettre d’accord, il ne faut que les décider à faire le tour de l’édifice.
Communists, you dream of the community (of goods). Well you have it. The social order makes all things of use common (to all), on condition that the exchange of privately owned things of value is made freely.
You are like architects who quarrel over a monument, which they have seen from just one side. They do not see incorrectly, but they do not see everything. To make them agree, all you need is to persuade them to walk around the edifice.
FEE: Socialists, you dream of public ownership. You have it. The social order makes all utilities common to all, provided the exchange of privately owned values remains free.
You are like architects arguing over a building of which each one has seen only one side. They do not see poorly, but they do not see all. To reach an agreement, they need only to walk around the entire edifice. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/79#Bastiat_0187_651
This comes from a passage that was added to the second expanded edition of Economic Harmonies. Bastiat severely criticised Rousseau whose ideas he believed had mislead generations of French readers about what he thought were the harmful effects of civilisation, private property, and free markets. See in particular his harsh comments in the essay “The Law” (June 1850). But here he quotes him more positively (in fact, he quotes this passage several times in his writings) agreeing with Rousseau that people often cannot see the things which are immediately around them, things which are habitual and everyday occurrences and thus pass unnoticed much of the time. Instead they only see things that are “abnormal” or out of the ordinary like the crop failures of 1846–47 which caused so much harm to ordinary workers and their families, prompting calls for price controls to be imposed on bread. What is not seen or properly understood is how, in normal times, individuals do anticipate and plan for the future needs of consumers which they cannot see now in the present but can only imagine or “foresee” will exist in the future. The market makes it possible to pool individual foresight or planning for the future thus creating a kind of “la prévoyance sociale” (social foresight or planning) to anticipate “unseen” future demand for a product (like food) by making plans to produce it in the present.
Bastiat argues that “from the point of view of political economy” the human capacity to engage in foresight or planing for the future (prévoir, la prévoyance) should never be underestimated.
|Remarquez ceci: dans l’humanité, l’inexpérience et l’imprévoyance précèdent l’expérience et la prévoyance. Ce n’est qu’avec le temps que les hommes ont pu prévoir leurs besoins réciproques, au point de se préparer à y pourvoir. Logiquement, le facio ut facias a dû précéder le do ut des. Celui-ci est en même temps le fruit et le signe de quelques connaissances répandues, de quelque expérience acquise, de quelque sécurité politique, de quelque confiance en l’avenir, en un mot, d’une certaine civilisation. Cette prévoyance sociale, cette foi en la demande qui fait qu’on prépare l’offre, cette sorte de statistique intuitive dont chacun a une notion plus ou moins précise, et qui établit un si surprenant équilibre entre les besoins et les approvisionnements, est un des ressorts les plus efficaces de la perfectibilité humaine. C’est à lui que nous devons la séparation des occupations, ou du moins les professions et les métiers. C’est à lui que nous devons un des biens que les hommes recherchent avec le plus d’ardeur: la fixité des rémunérations, sous forme de salaire quant au travail, et d’intérêt quant au capital. C’est à lui que nous devons le crédit, les opérations à longue échéance, celles qui ont pour objet le nivellement des risques, etc. Il est surprenant qu’au point de vue de l’économie politique ce noble attribut de l’homme, la Prévoyance, n’ait pas été plus remarqué. C’est toujours, ainsi que le disait Rousseau, à cause de la difficulté que nous éprouvons à observer le milieu dans lequel nous sommes plongés et qui forme notre atmosphère naturelle. Il n’y a que les faits anormaux qui nous frappent, et nous laissons passer inaperçus ceux qui, agissant autour de nous, sur nous et en nous d’une manière permanente, modifient profondément l’homme et la société.||
Note this: in the human race, inexperience and lack of foresight precede experience and foresight. It is only with the passing of time that people have been able to foresee their reciprocal needs to the extent of preparing to meet them. Logically, facio ut facias (I do (something) for you so that you may do (something) for me) had to precede the do ut des (I give (something) to you so that you may give (something) to me). The latter is simultaneously the fruit and evidence of some dispersed knowledge, some acquired experience, some political security, or some confidence in the future, in a word, a certain degree of civilization. This social foresight, this belief in demand which means that we prepare the supply, this sort of intuitive (understanding of) statistics, of which everyone has a more or less accurate notion and which establishes so surprising an equilibrium between needs and supplies, is one of the most efficient springs of human perfectibility. To it we owe the division of labor, or at least the professions and trades. To it we owe one of the things that men pursue with the greatest ardor, the stability of payment in the form of wages in the case of labor and interest in the case of capital. To it we owe credit, operations of long term finance, those whose object is to level out risk, etc. It is surprising that from the point of view of political economy this noble attribute of man, foresight, has not been more noted. This, as Rousseau said, stems always from the difficulty we have in observing the environment that surrounds us, forming the very air we breathe. Only abnormal events strike us and we let pass unnoticed those that have their effects around us, on us, and in us, and create permanent and profound changes in man and society.
|FEE: Please bear this in mind: In the history of mankind, inexperience and improvidence precede experience and foresight. Only in the course of time have men come to anticipate their mutual wants fully enough to prepare for them. Logically, the facio ut facias pattern had to precede the do ut des. The latter is both the result and the outward sign of some growth of knowledge, of a certain amount of experience, of political security, of faith in the future—in a word, of some degree of civilization. This foresight on the part of society, this faith in the demand that induces men to prepare the supply, this kind of intuitive statistical sense, to be found in all men, which establishes such a surprising balance between wants and the means of satisfying them, is one of the most powerful stimulants to human progress. Thanks to it, we have the division of labor, or at least as far as trades and professions are concerned. Thanks to it, we have one of the blessings men most ardently desire: fixed rewards for services, in the form of wages for labor and interest on capital. Thanks to it, we have credit, long-range financing, projects involving shared risks, etc. It is surprising that foresight, that noble attribute of man, has been so much neglected by the economists. It is due, as Rousseau said, to the difficulty we have in observing the environment in which we are immersed and which forms our natural habitat. Only unusual phenomena strike us, and we allow to pass unnoticed those that, constantly at work around us, upon us, and within us, modify us and our society so profoundly. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/79#Bastiat_0187_902|
In this passage Bastiat responds to socialist criticisms about the legitimacy of charging interest on capital and rent for agricultural land which had become common place in the late 1840s. The socialists believed that only “le travail actuel” (present labour) which could be “seen by the naked eye” should be paid for, and not “le travail antérieur” (labour which had been completed in the past and was now in the form of capital) which was no longer visible. He appeals to the reader not to be blind (insensibles) to the beneficent effects of the “economic harmonies” of the free market which are “unfolding before our very eyes”.
Passez en revue toutes les améliorations permanentes dont l’ensemble constitue la valeur du sol, et vous pourrez faire sur chacune la même remarque. Après avoir détruit le fossé, détruisez aussi la clôture, réduisant l’agriculteur à monter la garde autour de son champ; détruisez le puits, la grange, le chemin, la charrue, le nivellement, l’humus artificiel; replacez dans le champ les cailloux, les plantes parasites, les racines d’arbres, alors vous aurez réalisé l’utopie égalitaire. Le sol, et le genre humain avec lui, sera revenu à l’état primitif: il n’aura plus de valeur. Les récoltes n’auront plus rien à démêler avec le capital. Leur prix sera dégagé de cet élément maudit qu’on appelle intérêt. Tout, absolument tout, se fera par du travail actuel, visible à l’œil nu. L’économie politique sera fort simplifiée. La France fera vivre un homme par lieue carrée. Tout le reste aura péri d’inanition; — mais on ne pourra plus dire: La propriété est un monopole, une illégitimité, un vol.
Ne soyons donc pas insensibles à ces harmonies économiques qui se déroulent à nos yeux, à mesure que nous analysons les idées d’échange, de valeur, de capital, d’intérêt, de propriété, de communauté.
If we review all the permanent improvements that constitute the value of the soil you would be able to make the same comment for each of them. Having destroyed the ditch, destroy the fencing as well, thus reducing the farmer to mounting guard on his field. Destroy the well, the barn, the track, the plough, the leveling (which has been) carried out, and the artificial fertilizer. Put the stones back into the field, together with the weeds and the roots of trees, and then you will have achieved egalitarian utopia. The soil, and the human race with it, will be returned to its original state, and will no longer have any value. Harvests would no longer have anything to do with. Their price would be free of this damn thing known as interest. Everything, absolutely everything, will be done through present labor visible to the naked eye. Political economy will be very much simpler. France will provide a living for one man per square league; all the others will have died of starvation, but nobody will be able to say: property is a monopoly, illegitimate, a theft.
Let us therefore not be blind to the economic harmonies unfolding before our eyes as we analyze the ideas of exchange, value, capital, interest, property, and community.
FEE: Enumerate all the permanent improvements that together make up the value of the soil, and you can make the same observation for each one of them. After you destroy the ditch, destroy the fences too, forcing the owner to go back to standing guard on his field; destroy the well, the barn, the road, the plow, the grading, the artificial mould; put back into it the stories, the weeds, the tree roots, and then you will have achieved utopian equality. The soil, and the human race along with it, will have returned to its original state: it will no longer have value. The crops will no longer be burdened with capital. Their price will be free of that cursed element called interest. Everything, absolutely everything, will be done by current labor, visible to the naked eye. Political economy will be greatly simplified. France will support one man for every five square miles of land. All the others will have starved to death; but it can no longer be said: Property is a monopoly; it is an injustice; it is theft.
Let us not, therefore, be insensible to those economic harmonies that pass before our eyes as we analyze the concepts of exchange, value, capital, interest, private property, public ownership.  Need I present the entire cycle? But perhaps we have gone far enough to realize that the social world, no less than the material world, bears the impress of the divine hand, from which come wisdom and loving-kindness, and toward which we should raise our eyes in awe and gratitude. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/79#Bastiat_0187_1460
In this passage Bastiat defends competition against its critics. Previously he had focused on the benefits of international, global competition which brought products from all over the world to the consumers of France at the cheapest price. But he worries that he has thereby distracted “the readers eye” (dérober à l’œil du lecteur) from the same processes which were taking place with more common domestic products.
Here he revisits the quote from Rousseau about people not seeing what is right before their eyes in the form of mundane and everyday items like a piece of bread or cloth. In order to see what is going on the consumer has to go beneath the surface appearance of things, under “the skin” of society as it were, in order to appreciate how competition between producers leads to innovation, improvement in quality, and cheaper prices for these everyday goods. He calls this the “gratuitous utility” which the innovators and producers make available to the consumers.
|J’ai cité deux exemples, et, pour rendre le phénomène plus frappant par sa grandeur, j’ai choisi des relations internationales opérées sur une vaste échelle. Je crains d’être ainsi tombé dans l’inconvénient de dérober à l’œil du lecteur le même phénomène agissant incessamment autour de nous et dans nos transactions les plus familières. Qu’il veuille bien prendre dans ses mains les plus humbles objets, un verre, un clou, un morceau de pain, une étoffe, un livre. Qu’il se prenne à méditer sur ces vulgaires produits. Qu’il se demande quelle incalculable masse d’utilité gratuite serait, à la vérité, sans la Concurrence, demeurée gratuite pour le producteur, mais n’aurait jamais été gratuite pour l’humanité, c’est-à-dire ne serait jamais devenue commune. … et il comprendra alors le vice des théories socialistes, qui, ne voyant que la superficie des choses, l’épiderme de la société, se sont si légèrement élevées contre la Concurrence, c’est-à-dire contre la liberté humaine; il comprendra que la Concurrence, maintenant aux dons que la nature a inégalement répartis sur le globe le double caractère de la gratuité et de la communauté, il faut la considérer comme le principe d’une juste et naturelle égalisation||
I have cited two examples, and in order to make the phenomenon even more striking in its grandeur I have chosen international relations operating on a vast scale. I fear that I may thereby have fallen into the trap of shifting the reader’s gaze from the very same phenomenon happening constantly around us in our most mundane transactions. Let him pick up the most humble of objects, a glass, a nail, a piece of bread, a piece of fabric or a book. He should meditate a while on these commonplace objects. Let him ask himself whether, without competition, such an incalculable mass of free utility would truly have remained free for the producer but would never have become free for the human race, that is to say, would never have become common to all. … At this point he will understand the flaws in socialist theories that, merely seeing the surface appearance of things, the epidermis of society, have spoken out so irresponsibly against competition, that is to say, against human freedom, and will realize that since competition safeguards the twin character of gratuitousness and common availability of the gifts that nature has inequitably distributed over the planet, it has to be considered as the basis of a just and natural process of equalization.
|FEE: I have offered two illustrations, and, in order to make the phenomenon the more impressive by reason of its size, I have chosen international operations on a very large scale. For that reason I am afraid that I may have failed to make the reader realize that the same phenomenon constantly takes place all about us and in our most ordinary transactions. Let him, then, be good enough to pick out the most humble objects, a glass, a nail, a slice of bread, a piece of cloth, a book. I ask him to reflect a little on these unpretentious articles. Let him ask himself what an incalculable amount of gratuitous utility would, were it not for competition, have indeed remained free of charge for their producers, but would never have become free of charge for humanity; that is, would never have become common to all. … and then he will understand the flaw in the socialist theories, which, viewing only the surface of things, only society’s outer shell, have so irresponsibly railed against competition, that is to say, against human freedom. Then he will understand that competition, which insures that the gifts of Nature so inequitably distributed over the globe will retain their double character of being free of charge and common to all, must be considered as the principle of a fair and natural equalization … https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/79#Bastiat_0187_1541|
The following passage is an example of Bastiat discussing the importance of not just looking at a part of something but the whole of it, as well as only looking at the surface of things and not the deeper reality. A common criticism of competition was that it harmed the interests of workers. It could take the form of competition between producers who wanted to lower their costs and thus sought to replace physical labour with machines in the factories. Or it could take the form of competition between workers for jobs, who would take cuts in their pay and working conditions in order to get employment. Bastiat’s response was that competition had a beneficial side for the workers and that the costs and benefits of competition had to be carefully weighed up both in the short term as well as in the longer term.
Competition between producers often benefited the workers when there was a labour shortage which led to a bidding war for labour which increased their wages, or the introduction of machines which made the workers more productive and which also led to higher wages as a result. Workers also benefitted more generally in that they like all consumers enjoyed the lower prices, greater choice, and higher quality of goods which global competition made possible. Elsewhere Bastiat argued that when the observer takes a much longer term view, say over a century or two, the gradual progress which European societies had enjoyed in diet, housing, living conditions, longevity of life, transport and communications, etc. showed that people had become much better off. However, because these improvement were so gradual they were almost invisible to the eye and thus not fully understood or appreciated.
Il est vrai que le prolétaire, quand il se considère comme producteur, comme offreur de travail ou de services, se plaint aussi de la concurrence. Admettons donc qu’elle lui profite d’une part, et qu’elle le gêne de l’autre; il s’agit de savoir si la balance lui est favorable, ou défavorable, ou s’il y a compensation.
Je me serais bien mal expliqué si le lecteur ne comprenait pas que, dans ce mécanisme merveilleux, le jeu des concurrences, en apparence antagoniques, aboutit à ce résultat singulier et consolant qu’il y a balance favorable pour tout le monde à la fois, à cause de l’Utilité gratuite agrandissant sans cesse le cercle de la production et tombant sans cesse dans le domaine de la Communauté. … C’est cette portion d’utilité gratuite, forcée par la Concurrence de devenir commune, qui fait que les valeurs tendent à devenir proportionnelles au travail, ce qui est au profit évident du travailleur. C’est elle aussi qui explique cette solution sociale, que je tiens constamment sous les yeux du lecteur, et qui ne peut nous être voilée que par les illusions de l’habitude: pour un travail déterminé chacun obtient une somme de satisfactions qui tend à s’accroître et à s’égaliser.
It is true that when they consider themselves producers or suppliers of work or services, the proletariat also complain about competition. Let us assume therefore that it benefits them on one hand and harms them on the other. What we need to know is whether on the whole competition is beneficial or detrimental to the proletariat or whether it balances out.
I would have explained myself very badly if the reader failed to understand that in this marvelous mechanism, the interplay of these different kinds of competition which appear (on the surface) to be antagonistic result in this important and reassuring conclusion that there is a balance which is favourable to everybody at the same time, because gratuitous utility constantly increases the sphere of production and (then) falls into the domain of the Commons. … It is also this portion that explains the solution to the social problem that I constantly keep before the reader’s eyes, and which only the illusions of habit alone are capable of shrouding. For a given quantity of work each person receives a quantity of satisfaction that tends to increase and become equal.
FEE: It is true that the members of the proletariat, when they consider themselves as producers, as suppliers of labor or services, also complain of competition. Let us admit, then, that competition is to their advantage on the one hand, and to their disadvantage on the other; the question is to determine whether the balance is favorable or unfavorable, or whether there are compensating factors.
Unless I have expressed myself very badly, the reader now realizes that in this wonderful mechanism the interplay of various  aspects of competition, apparently so antagonistic, brings about, as its singular and reassuring result, a balance that is favorable to all simultaneously, because of the gratuitous utility that steadily enlarges the circle of production and constantly falls within the communal domain. … This, too, provides the basis for the solution of the social problem that I have tried to keep constantly before the reader, and which only the veil of misconceptions born of habit can prevent him from seeing, namely, that for a given amount of labor each one receives a sum of satisfactions whose tendency is to increase and to be distributed equally. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/79#Bastiat_0187_1571
This is one of the unfinished chapters which only appeared in the second enlarged posthumous edition. It is a version of the argument he used in his “sophism of the ricochet effect” and is similar to chapter III “Taxes” in WSWNS. He criticises the idea that taxes paid for the salaries of public servants (functionaries) “come back” to the taxpayer, as a result of the “ricochet” or flow on effect, when the public servant spends their salary. This is an “illusion” in Bastiat’s view and is another example of opportunity cost where people only see the public servant’s expenditure and do not see what the taxpayers would have done with their money had they been allowed to keep it. They too would have spent it on something, but on something else and somewhere else. See also example 9 below.
|Nous plaçons ici cette observation pour prévenir un sophisme très-répandu, né de l’illusion monétaire. On entend souvent dire: L’argent reçu par les fonctionnaires retombe en pluie sur les citoyens. Et l’on infère de là que cette prétendue pluie est un second bien ajouté à celui qui résulte du service. En raisonnant ainsi, on est arrivé à justifier les fonctions les plus parasites. On ne prend pas garde que, si le service fut resté dans le domaine de l’activité privée, l’argent qui, au lieu d’aller au trésor et de là aux fonctionnaires, aurait été directement aux hommes qui se seraient chargés de rendre librement le service, cet argent, dis-je, serait aussi retombé en pluie dans la masse. Ce sophisme ne résiste pas quand on porte la vue au-delà de la circulation des espèces, quand on voit qu’au fond il y a du travail échangé contre du travail, des services contre des services. Dans l’ordre public, il peut arriver que des fonctionnaires reçoivent des services sans en rendre; alors il y a perte pour le contribuable, quelque illusion que puisse nous faire à cet égard le mouvement des écus.||
We have made this observation here to ward off a widespread sophism born of the money illusion. You often hear it said that the money received by functionaries falls again like rain on the citizens, with the inference that this alleged rain is a second benefit added to the one resulting from the service. Such reasoning serves to justify the most parasitical functions. No notice is taken of the fact that if the service had been left in the domain of private activity, the money, instead of going to the treasury and thence to functionaries, would have gone directly to people who would have been responsible for freely providing the service, and would also have fallen like rain on the population. This sophism does not stand up if we look beyond the circulation of money and see that this is basically work being exchanged for work and services for services. In the public realm, it may happen that functionaries receive services without rendering any in return. In this case taxpayers are the losers, whatever the illusion the movement of écus may have on us.
|FEE: We make this observation to guard against a very commonly accepted monetary fallacy. We often hear it said that the money functionaries receive falls back, like a refreshing rain, on the citizens, and the inference is drawn that this so-called rain is an additional benefit accruing to the service. This reasoning has been used to justify the most parasitical activities. Those who reason thus do not realize that if the service had remained a private one, the money, instead of going first to the state treasury and from there to the functionaries, would have gone directly from those receiving the service to those performing it voluntarily and from them would likewise have fallen, like a gentle rain, upon the entire community. The fallacy in this kind of reasoning becomes evident when we look beyond the circulation of currency to the  fundamental fact of labor exchanged for labor, of services exchanged for services. In the realm of government operation it may happen that functionaries receive services from the citizens without rendering services in return; in that case the taxpayer suffers a loss, no matter what illusion the circulation of bank notes may create. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/79#Bastiat_0187_2203|
This passage comes from another unfinished chapter which appeared in the second, enlarged, posthumous edition. It provides another example of Bastiat arguing that one must “look at” (regarder) more than just one side in order to understand what is going on. The issue here is when is it legitimate to use force against another person, what is the proper function of the state, and what are the limits to its power.
A related issue, which is not directly discussed here, is how one should regard (look at) the state itself, especially when it transcends its legitimate functions.
Bastiat believes that the only legitimate use of force is in self-defence, which he believes is a right individuals have before the state arose; and once there is a state its only legitimate function is to defend and protect the legitimate rights of the individuals in society, and no more than this. Here Bastiat wants to take issue with a common belief that when an individual violates the liberty of another individual, this is a result of there being “too much” liberty for the former. Bastiat believes this is an example of only looking at (regarder) the issue from one side, namely that of the aggressor. Bastiat believes this is a false way of looking at the problem, rather it should be looked at from the point of view of the victim of aggression, from which it appears to be a result of an absence or the destruction of liberty. He believes that it also appears to be a “lack of liberty” for society as a whole when it is looked at from the perspective of “l’ensemble du phénomène” (the whole or the collection of phenomena).
This passage also touches upon some of Bastiat’s greatest insights into the nature of the state, firstly that it engages in organised and “legal plunder” which private individuals are prohibited from doing but which it hides or disguises under the cloak of the law which legitimizes its actions; secondly, that people are deluded by what the state can and should do and thus ask this “fiction” or “l’être fictif” (imaginary being) to provide them with everything they need at taxpayers’ expense, such as jobs, food, education, housing, etc. He also calls this a “dangerous illusion” the folly of which needs to be pointed out to the people.
Dans quel cas l’emploi de la force est-il légitime? Il y en a un, et je crois qu’il n’y en a qu’un: le cas de légitime défense. S’il en est ainsi, la raison d’être des gouvernements est trouvée, ainsi que leur limite rationnelle.
Quel est le droit de l’individu? C’est de faire avec ses semblables des transactions libres, d’où suit pour ceux-ci un droit réciproque. Quand est-ce que ce droit est violé? Quand l’une des parties entreprend sur la liberté de l’autre. En ce cas il est faux de dire, comme on le fait souvent: «Il y a des excès, abus de liberté.» Il faut dire: «Il y a défaut, destruction de liberté.» Excès de liberté sans doute si on ne regarde que l’agresseur; destruction de liberté si l’on regarde la victime, ou même si l’on considère, comme on le doit, l’ensemble du phénomène.
In what circumstances is the use of force legitimate? There is one, and I believe there is only one: the case of legitimate self-defense. If this is so, the raison d’être of governments is apparent, as is their rational limit.
What is the right of an individual? It is to carry out free transactions with his fellow men, which gives rise to a reciprocal right in these people. When is this right violated? When one of the parties infringes the freedom of the other. In this case, it is wrong to say, as is so often done: “There has been an excess, an abuse of freedom.” What ought to be said is: “There has been a lack, a destruction of freedom.” An excess of freedom, doubtless, if you look only at the aggressor; destruction of freedom if you take only look at the victim, or even if you consider, as you should, the phenomenon as a whole.
FEE: In what case is the use of force legitimate? There is one, and, I believe, only one: the case of legitimate defense. If this is so, the justification of government has been found, as well as the rational limit of its prerogatives.
What is the right of the individual? The right to carry on free and voluntary transactions with his fellow men, who consequently have the same right. When is this right violated? When one of the parties encroaches upon the other’s liberty. In that case it is incorrect to say, as is often done: “These are excesses; these are abuses of liberty!” We must say: “Liberty is lacking; liberty has been destroyed.” There has been excessive use of liberty, undoubtedly, if we consider only the aggressor; but destruction of liberty if we consider the victim, or even if we consider, as we should, the phenomenon in its entirety. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/79#Bastiat_0187_2237
Here is another example of the problems of legal plunder by the state, the “ricochet effect" defence of government spending, and seeing an issue from only one side. The latter is used by Bastiat to turn the “ricochet effect” on its head. Normally it was used by public servants (functionaries) or recipients of government privileges such as subsidies and tariffs to justify what they received from the government as it would “trickle down” to the poor eventually. Here Bastiat argues that the poor could use the same argument to justify their getting taxpayer funded benefits, as they too would stimulate the economy by spending it themselves.
On pourrait cependant leur faire observer que si, au lieu d’exercer la spoliation par l’intermédiaire de la loi, ils l’exerçaient directement, leur sophisme s’évanouirait: Si, de votre autorité privée, vous preniez dans la poche d’un ouvrier un franc qui facilitât votre entrée au théâtre, seriez-vous bien venu à dire à cet ouvrier: «Mon ami, ce franc va circuler et va donner du travail à toi et à tes frères?» Et l’ouvrier ne serait-il pas fondé à répondre: «Ce franc circulera de même si vous ne me le volez pas; il ira au boulanger au lieu d’aller au machiniste; il me procurera du pain au lieu de vous procurer des spectacles?»
Il faut remarquer, en outre, que le sophisme des ricochets pourrait être aussi bien invoqué par les pauvres. Ils pourraient dire aux riches: «Que la loi nous aide à vous voler. Nous consommerons plus de drap, cela profitera à vos manufactures; nous consommerons plus de viande, cela profitera à vos terres; nous consommerons plus de sucre, cela profitera à vos armements.»
However, it might be pointed out to them that if, instead of carrying out plunder using the law as an intermediary, they exercised it directly, their sophism would vanish: “If on your individual authority you took from the pockets of a workman one franc to help to pay for your admission to the theatre, would you be in any position to say to this workman: ‘My friend, this franc will be put into circulation and will give work to you and your brethren.”? And would the workman not be entitled to reply: “This franc would circulate even if you did not steal it from me. It would go to the baker instead of the stagehand; it would provide me with bread instead of entertainment for you.”
What is more, it should be noted that the sophism of the ricochet effect might also be invoked by the poor. They might say to the wealthy: “Let the law help us to rob you. We will consume more woolen cloth, and that will benefit your factories. We will consume more meat, and that will benefit your land. We will consume more sugar, and that will benefit your shipping.”
FEE: We could, however, point out to them that if, instead of perpetrating plunder through the instrumentality of the law, they perpetrated it directly, their specious argument would lose its force. If, on your own personal authority, you stole a franc from a worker’s pocket to help to pay for your admission to the theater, would you perchance have said to this worker, “My friend, this franc is being put into circulation and will provide work for you and your fellow workers”?
And would not the worker have had good reason to reply, “This franc will certainly go into circulation whether you steal it from me or not; it will go to the baker rather than to the stage-hand; it will provide me with bread rather than you with a theatrical performance”?
It must be observed, furthermore, that the sophism of the indirect effect of spending could be equally well invoked by the poor. They could say to the rich, “Let the law help us steal from you. We shall consume more cloth, and that will help your factories. We shall consume more meat, and that will help your farms. We shall consume more sugar, and that will help your shipping.” https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/79#Bastiat_0187_2276
In this passage Bastiat discusses the issue of an action which produces a series of effects or consequences, some of which result in benefits to the actor (usually the first consequence) and some of which do not (usually later ones). Experience will teach the individual when this is the case, this will cause them to learn from their mistakes, and in the future they will exercise “foresight” so this does not occur again. The harmful effects will “open their eyes” and enlightenment will be achieved.
Quand un de nos actes produit une première conséquence qui nous agrée, suivie de plusieurs autres conséquences qui nuisent, de telle sorte que la somme des maux l’emporte sur celle des biens, cet acte tend à se restreindre et à disparaître à mesure que nous acquérons plus de prévoyance.
Les hommes aperçoivent naturellement les conséquences immédiates avant les conséquences éloignées. D’où il suit que ce que nous avons appelé les actes vicieux sont plus multipliés dans les temps d’ignorance. Or la répétition des mêmes actes forme les habitudes. Les siècles d’ignorance sont donc le règne des mauvaises habitudes.
Par suite, c’est encore le règne des mauvaises lois, car les actes répétés, les habitudes générales constituent les mœurs sur lesquelles se modèlent les lois, et don’t elles sont, pour ainsi parler, l’expression officielle.
Comment cesse cette ignorance? Comment les hommes apprennent-ils à connaître les secondes, les troisièmes et jusqu’aux dernières conséquences de leurs actes et de leurs habitudes?
Ils ont pour cela un premier moyen: c’est l’application de cette faculté de discerner et de raisonner qu’ils tiennent de la Providence.
Mais il est un moyen plus sûr, plus efficace, c’est l’expérience. — Quand l’acte est commis, les conséquences arrivent fatalement. La première est bonne, on le savait, c’est justement pour l’obtenir qu’on s’est livré à l’acte. Mais la seconde inflige une souffrance, la troisième une souffrance plus grande encore, et ainsi de suite.
Alors les yeux s’ouvrent, la lumière se fait. On ne renouvelle pas l’acte ; on sacrifie le bien de la première conséquence par crainte du mal plus grand que contiennent les autres. Si l’acte est devenu une habitude et si l’on n’a pas la force d’y renoncer, du moins on ne s’y livre qu’avec hésitation et répugnance, à la suite d’un combat intérieur. On ne le conseille pas, on le blâme ; on en détourne ses enfants. On est certainement dans la voie du progrès.
When one of our actions produces an initial consequence that we like, followed by several others that are harmful, so that the total evil outweighs the good, this act tends to become limited and disappear as we acquire more foresight.
People naturally perceive immediate consequences before those that occur later. From this it follows that what we have called harmful acts are more frequent in eras of ignorance. Well, a repetition of the same act forms a habit. Centuries of ignorance therefore cause bad habits to reign.
As a result bad laws still reign, for repeated acts and general habits make up the customs on which the laws are modeled and of which they are, so to speak, the official expression.
How do we stop this ignorance? How do people learn to identify the second, third, and so on to the final consequences of their actions and habits?
The first means for them to do this is to apply the faculty of discernment and reason that they receive from Providence.
But there is another means that is surer and more effective, experience. When an action is done, it inevitably has consequences. One knew that the first consequence would be good, since it was precisely to achieve this that the action was undertaken in the first place. But the second consequence inflicts suffering, the third even greater suffering, and so on.
Eyes are then opened, and enlightenment follows. The action is not repeated, and the good of the first consequence is sacrificed for fear of the greater evil caused by the succeeding ones. If the action has become a habit and if people are not strong enough to reject it, at least they carry it out only with hesitation and repugnance following (some) inner conflict. It is not recommended, but censured, and children are warned against it. This is certainly the path of progress.
FEE: When one of our acts produces a first result that is pleasurable, followed by a number of others that are harmful, so that the sum of the bad is greater than the good, this act tends to be done less frequently and to disappear as we acquire more foresight.
Men naturally perceive immediate consequences more quickly than remote consequences. Hence, it follows that what we call vicious acts are more common in times of ignorance. Now, the repetition of the same acts develops habits. The centuries of ignorance are therefore marked by the reign of bad habits.
Consequently, these are also the times of the reign of bad laws, for repeated acts and general habits determine the customs on which laws are modeled, and of which they are, so to speak, the official expression.
How is this ignorance brought to an end? How do men come to know the second, the third, and ultimately the final consequences of their acts and habits?
Their first means is to use the faculty of discerning and reasoning given them by Providence.
But there is a surer, more effective way, which is through experience. When the act is performed, the consequences necessarily follow. It is known that the first consequence will be good; it was precisely to obtain this result that the act was performed. But the second entails suffering, the third greater suffering, and so on.
Then people’s eyes are opened, and the light dawns. The act is not repeated; the benefit of the first consequence is forgone through dread of the greater harm brought about by the others. If the act has become a habit, and one does not have the strength to give it up, at least one yields to it only with hesitation and repugnance, after an inner struggle. It is not recommended; it is censured; one’s children are advised against it. Certainly this is the road to progress. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/79#Bastiat_0187_2435
In this passage, Bastiat discusses how people learn from their mistakes, pass this knowledge on to others, and use the power of public opinion to correct harmful behaviour instead of resorting to the state to solve problems. He called this a form of “human solidarity”. However, sometimes this is not possible when the link between an action and its consequences are broken. In the case of an individual, they soon feel directly and personally the consequences of a poorly chosen action, however this is not the case in a large group of people. Since actions result in a “series of consequences” the observer has to take into account all of them not just the initial one. An act might have an immediate and good effect which occurs locally and thus is “parfaitement visible” (perfectly visible) to the people. However, the subsequent, later consequences might cause harm, which is difficult to see, which then enters into society. Thus the connection between a harmful action and its bad effects is broken. In this way the general public is often mislead or deceived about the good which will result from a certain action when in fact it will cause them and society great harm. It is very revealing of Bastiat’s anti-war sentiments that he chose war as his example in this passage.
La Solidarité est donc, comme la responsabilité, une force progressive; et l’on voit que, relativement à l’auteur de l’acte, elle se résout en responsabilité répercutée, si je puis m’exprimer ainsi; — que c’est encore un système de peines et de récompenses réciproques, admirablement calculé pour circonscrire le mal, étendre le bien et pousser l’humanité dans la voie qui mène au progrès.
Mais pour qu’elle fonctionne dans ce sens, — pour que ceux qui profitent ou souffrent d’une action, qu’ils n’ont pas faite, réagissent sur son auteur par l’approbation ou l’improbation, la gratitude ou la résistance, l’estime, l’affection, la louange, ou le mépris, la haine et la vengeance, — une condition est indispensable : c’est que le lien qui existe entre un acte et tous ses effets soit connu et apprécié.
Quand le public se trompe à cet égard, la loi manque son but.
Un acte nuit à la masse; mais la masse est convaincue que cet acte lui est avantageux. Qu’arrive-t-il alors? C’est qu’au lieu de réagir contre cet acte, au lieu de le condamner et par là de le restreindre, le public l’exalte, l’honore, le célèbre et le multiplie.
Rien n’est plus fréquent, et en voici la raison:
Un acte ne produit pas seulement sur les masses un effet, mais une série d’effets. Or il arrive souvent que le premier effet est un bien local, parfaitement visible, tandis que les effets ultérieurs font filtrer insensiblement dans le corps social un mal difficile à discerner ou à rattacher à sa cause.
La guerre en est un exemple.
(Human) solidarity, like (individual) responsibility, is thus a force for progress, and it can be seen that with regard to the author of the act it results in responsibility which is passed on to others, if I may put it this way, which is another system of reciprocal rewards and punishments which are admirably calculated to limit harm, extend good, and propel the human race along the path that leads to progress.
But in order for it to act in this way, for those who benefit or suffer from an action of which they are not the authors, to redirect their approval or blame, gratitude or resistance, esteem, affection and praise or scorn, hatred and vengeance to the person who carried it out, one condition is essential, and that is that the link that exists between an action and all its effects must be known and assessed.
When the general public is mistaken with regard to this, the law fails in its aim.
If an action causes harm to the masses but the masses are convinced that this action is beneficial to them, what happens? Instead of reacting against this act, instead of condemning it and restraining it, the general public exalts, honors, praises, and multiplies it.
Nothing happens more often, and this is the reason why:
An action does not have just one effect on the masses, but a series of effects. Well, it often happens that the initial effect is good locally and perfectly visible, while subsequent effects pass through unseen into the social body a form of harm difficult to discern/perceive/see or to relate to its cause.
War is an example of this.
FEE: Solidarity is, therefore, like responsibility, a progressive force; and we see that, as far as the doer of the act is concerned, it resolves itself into a kind of refracted responsibility, if I may so express myself. It is another system of reciprocal penalties and rewards admirably calculated to curtail what is bad, to encourage what is good, and to carry mankind forward along the road to progress.
But for solidarity to have this effect—for those who gain or lose by an act that they have not committed to influence the doer by their approval or disapproval, their gratitude or opposition, their esteem, affection, praise or scorn, hatred, and vengeance—one condition is indispensable: the connection between an act and all its effects must be known and understood.
When the public is in error on this subject, the law fails in its aim.
An act is harmful to the masses; but the masses are convinced that it is advantageous to them. Then what happens? Instead of reacting against it, condemning it, and thus suppressing it, the public extols it, honors it, and does it all the more.
Nothing happens more frequently, and here is the reason:
An act does not produce on the masses only one effect, but a series of effects. Now, it often happens that the first effect, which is beneficial, is quite local and completely visible, whereas the more remote effects spread through the body politic an evil that it is difficult to discern or to trace back to its cause.
War is an example. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/79#Bastiat_0187_2539
Not to understand political economy is to let oneself be dazzled by the immediate effect of a phenomenon; to understand it (means) to consider all of its effects in one’s thinking and in one’s predictions (about the future).
Bastiat, chap. XII “The Right to Work" WSWNS (1850)
In his definitive work on the matter, written only months before he died, Bastiat provides the reader with a concise definition of what he meant by the term (quoted above) and a dozen specific examples of his principle at work. Since the entire book is devoted to a detailed discussion of the principle of “the seen” and “the unseen” we will only summarise the contents here.
A number of his key ideas from previous books and articles are drawn upon here as well and in some cases developed in new directions, such as the idea of the “displacement” or transfer of wealth which is often misunderstood as an increase in wealth, the sophism of the ricochet effect (especially applied to the salaries paid to public servants), the idea of the “double incidence of loss” which describes the missing “third party” who loses out when state laws favour one party over another (this “third party” is left hidden in the shadows and thus can’t be seen easily), the idea that economic actions produce a series of events which take place over time and space; and his objection to the practice of “legal plunder” (and a new related term of the “legal parasite”). He also introduces two new kinds of “eyes” with which the economic world can be viewed: “l’œil gauche” (the left eye) which only sees the immediately obvious, i.e. “the seen”, and “l’œil droit” (the right eye) which is not usually used to view the world but which would reveal the less obvious or things hidden, i.e. “the unseen.”
He also tells a number of “economic stories” which was a rhetorical device which played such an important role in making his popularisation of economic ideas understandable to ordinary people in his collection of “economic sophisms” as well as in his treatise Economic Harmonies. Bastiat wrote about 75 short essays which might be considered to be part of his collection of “economic sophisms”. Of these 14 (19%) were in dialog or constructed conversational form, 8 (11%) were stand alone economic tales or fables, and 8 (11%) were fictional letters or petitions to government officials and other documents. Thus a total of 30 (40%) could be regarded as “stories” of some kind. In his treatise Economic Harmonies we have counted 55 similar economic stories. In the booklet WSWNS there are 4 such stories:
Bastiat also in this essay gives us several clear statements about what he thought the purpose of studying economics was:
The specific examples of the “the seen” and “the unseen" covered in this book include the following:
It is always the struggle between what strikes the eyes and what is only revealed to the mind, between what is seen and what is not seen.
Bastiat, chap. VI “Intermediaries” WSWNS (1850)
Bastiat’s interest in the principle of “the seen“ and ”the unseen" was not confined to the last work he wrote which carries its name in the title. It was an an issue which concerned him almost from the start of his career and one he continued to work on until his premature death. He developed a complex set of terms to describe this phenomenon, what I have called a “word cluster”, which was similar in its richness to others he developed for his ideas about class, plunder, and human action.
Bastiat concluded his booklet WSWNS with the following words which I think are fitting here as well:
Ainsi, on le voit par les nombreux sujets que j’ai parcourus: Ne pas savoir l’Économie politique, c’est se laisser éblouir par l’effet immédiat d’un phénomène; la savoir, c’est embrasser dans sa pensée et dans sa prévision l’ensemble des effets.
Je pourrais soumettre ici une foule d’autres questions à la même épreuve. Mais je recule devant la monotonie d’une démonstration toujours uniforme, et je termine, en appliquant à l’Économie politique ce que Chateaubriand dit de l’Histoire:
« Il y a, dit-il, deux conséquences en histoire: l’une immédiate et qui est à l’instant connue, l’autre éloignée et qu’on n’aperçoit pas d’abord. Ces conséquences souvent se contredisent; les unes viennent de notre courte sagesse, les autres de la sagesse perdurable. L’événement providentiel apparaît après l’événement humain. Dieu se lève derrière les hommes. Niez tant qu’il vous plaira le suprême conseil, ne consentez pas à son action, disputez sur les mots, appelez force des choses ou raison ce que le vulgaire appelle Providence ; mais regardez à la fin d’un fait accompli, et vous verrez qu’il a toujours produit le contraire de ce qu’on en attendait, quand il n’a point été établi d’abord sur la morale et la justice. » (Chateaubriand. Mémoires d’outre-tombe.)
Thus one sees in the many subjects I have dealt with that, not to understand Political Economy is to let oneself be be blinded by the immediate effect of a phenomenon; to understand it (means) to consider all of its effects in one’s thinking and in one’s predictions (about the future).
I might at this point submit a host of other questions to the same proof. However, I draw back from the monotony of an endlessly repetitive argument and will close by applying to Political Economy what Chateaubriand said about History:
“There are” he said, “two consequences in history; one that is immediate and known right away, the other more distant and not obvious at first sight. These consequences are often contradictory; some come from our recently acquired wisdom, the others from wisdom of long standing. A providential event appears after a human one. God arises behind men. You may deny as much as you like the supreme counsel, refuse to accept what it has done, query its choice of words and dismiss as the mere force of things or reason, what the common folk call Providence, as much as you like. But look to the end of an accomplished deed and you will see that it has always produced the opposite of what was expected of it, when it has not initially been based on morality and justice.” (Chateaubriand, Memoirs from Beyond the Grave)[33
Bastiat, Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas, ou l’Économie politique en une leçon (What is Seen and What is Not Seen, or Political Economy in One Lesson) (Paris: Guillaumin, 1850). The Liberty Fund translation is in The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 3: Economic Sophisms and “What is Seen and What is Not Seen.” Jacques de Guenin, General Editor. David M. Hart, Academic Editor. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2017) , pp. 401–52. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2731#lf1573-03_head_211. ↩
See David M. Hart, “The Paris School of Liberal Political Economy” in The Cambridge History of French Thought, ed. Michael Moriarty and Jeremy Jennings (Cambridge University Press, 2019), pp. 301–12. ↩
The original editor Prosper Paillottet states that Bastiat had been working on the WSWNS pamphlet for over a year (so beginning work on it perhaps in early 1849 when he was also working on his treatise Economic Harmonies) but was delayed for a couple of reasons. One was that he lost the almost completed manuscript when he was moving house. He began again from scratch using some of the speeches he had given in the Chamber as source material. The second reason for the delay was that he then decided that the version based on his speeches was “trop sérieux” (too serious) and so threw it into the fire and burnt it. The version we today is the third version of the piece. ↩
Bastiat developed his idea of “flow on effects“ in his work on the ”ricochet effect“ (par ricochet) in several of his “economic sophisms”. By the “ricochet (or flow on) effect” Bastiat means the indirect consequences of an economic action which flow or knock on to other parties (potentially numbering in their thousands or even millions), sometimes with positive results (as with the invention of printing or steam powered ships) but more often with negative results (as with tariffs, subsidies, and taxes). This insight was an elaboration of his earlier idea of the ”Double Incidence of Loss“ which he also refers to in WSWNS. See ”The Double Incidence of Loss“ and ”The Sophism Bastiat never wrote: the Sophism of the Ricochet Effect" in Further Aspects of Bastiat’s Thought, in CW3, pp. 456–57 https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2731#lf1573-03_head_230 and
pp. 457–61 https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2731#lf1573-03_head_231 ↩
Joseph A. Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis. Edited from Manuscript by Elizabeth Boody Schumpeter (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974). 1st ed. 1954), p. 500–1. Schumpeter’s criticism gets even worse when he likens Bastiat to a bather who walks out into the water only to quickly get out of his depth. ↩
Hayek, Introduction,” Selected Essays on Political Economy, translated by Seymour Cain and edited by George B. de Huszar; introduction by F.A. Hayek (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1995), p. ix. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/956#Bastiat_0181_15 ↩
Jasay wrote a two part article called “The Seen and the Unseen” which appeared in Econlib, December 2004 and January 2005 where he applies Bastiat idea and borrows the name for his own title. See http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/y2004/Jasayunseen.html. He makes explicit reference to the greatness of Bastiat as an economist in the second article he wrote for Econlib, “Thirty-five Hours” [July 15, 2002] http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/Jasaywork.html. ↩
See for example Mike Munger’s comments in the Liberty Matters online discussion led by Robert Leroux, “Bastiat and Political Economy” (July 1, 2013), with Donald J. Boudreaux, Michael C. Munger, David M. Hart. https://oll.libertyfund.org/pages/bastiat-and-political-economy. ↩
See David M. Hart, “Opposing Economic Fallacies, Legal Plunder, and the State: Frédéric Bastiat’s Rhetoric of Liberty in the Economic Sophisms (1846–1850)”. A paper given at the July 2011 annual meeting of the History of Economic Thought Society of Australia (HETSA) at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. http://davidmhart.com/liberty/Papers/Bastiat/Hart_BastiatsSophismsAug2011.html. ↩
See my talk which I gave at the AIER in January 2020 on “Bastiat on Harmony and Disharmony” which contains a discussion of the word cluster affiliated with these concepts. <davidmhart.com/liberty/Papers/Bastiat/HarmonyDisharmony/index.html>. ↩
The word cluster he used for his theory of plunder includes the groups involved: “la classe spoliatrice” or “les spoliateurs” (the plundering class or the plunderers) and “les classes spoliées” (the plundered classes); the degree of plunder: “la spoliation partielle” (partial plunder), “la spoliation universelle” (universal plunder) , and “l’absence de spoliation” (no plunder); its duration: ”la spoliation transitoire“ (transitory plunder) and ”la spoliation permanente” (permanent plunder); the role of government: “la spoliation extra-légale” (extra-legal plunder. i.e. outside the law), “la spoliation légale” (legal plunder, sanctioned or carried out by the state), “la spoliation gouvernementale” (plunder by government), “la spoliation militaire” (military plunder), and “l’exploitation des théocraties sacerdotales” (the exploitation by priestly theocracies); and its location: “la spoliation au dedans” or “la spoliation intérieure”(plunder within a country), “la spoliation au dehors” or “la spoliation extérieure” (plunder outside the country, e.g. war, conquest, colonies). I have drawn up a “word map” of his theory of plunder to make this easier to understand. See, http://davidmhart.com/liberty/Papers/Bastiat/HarmonyDisharmony/index.html#app1. ↩
See his notion of “The Ricochet (or flow-on) Effect” and his ideas about “flows” of water or electricity throughout the economy which carried information about supply and demand to producers and consumers. “The Sophism Bastiat never wrote: The Sophism of the Ricochet Effect” in Further Aspects of Bastiat’s Thought, in CW3, pp. 457–61. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2731#lf1573-03_head_231. ↩
See my analysis of the purpose of Bastiat’s “economic sophisms” in my Introduction to CW3 and my paper to HETSA, “Opposing Economic Fallacies, Legal Plunder, and the State: Frédéric Bastiat’s Rhetoric of Liberty in the Economic Sophisms (1846–1850)”. ↩
Bastiat is interested in the horizontal “flows” of cause and effect, or the transmission of information throughout the economy as consumers react to changing prices and levels of taxation, and producers react to their changing profits and losses. He likened this flow of information to flows of water or electricity which radiate out from a central point like ripples on a pond or electricity though wires. By “the ricochet effect” Bastiat meant the concatenation of effects caused by a single economic event (like a stone dropped into a pond) which “rippled” outwards from its source causing indirect flow on effects to third and other parties. A key insight behind this term is the idea that all economic events are tied together by webs of connectivity and mutual influence. The analogies he liked to use often involved water, such as “glisser” (to slide or slip over something), “rejaillir” (to spill, to cascade, to splash over), or communication flows through “canaux secrets” (hidden channels); or lines of force or electricity which stretched out in parallel lines to infinity. Interestingly, he comes quite close to the Hayekian idea of the role prices prices play in the transmission of information for economic decision making. ↩
Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, IV.i.10. ↩
“Travail humain, travail national” (Human Labor and Domestic Labor) (c. 1845), ES1 20 in CW3, p. 90. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2731#Bastiat_1573-03_873 ↩
“De l’influence du régime protecteur sur l’agriculture" (On the Impact of the Protectionist Regime on Agriculture), Journal des Économistes, Décembre 1846, T. XVI, no. 61, pp. 6–15. ↩
“Domination par le travail” (Domination through Work) (Libre-Échange, 14 February 1847) ES2.17 in CW3, pp. 248–53. Quote p. 250. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2731#Bastiat_1573-03_2253 ↩
See for example his attack on Rousseau in “The Law” (July 1850), CW2, pp. 128 ff. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2450#Bastiat_1573-02_994 ↩
“Natural and Artificial Organisation” (Organisation naturelle Organisation artificielle), Journal des Économistes, T. XIX, No. 74, Jan 1848, pp. 113–26; this essay also appeared as chapter 1 in EH1. The quote comes from Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality but Bastiat is quoting from memory here and it is not exactly correct. The French states: “…ce n’est pas chez lui (l’homme sauvage) qu’il faut chercher la philosophie don’t l’homme a besoin, pour savoir observer une fois ce qu’il a vu tous les jours” (… and we should look in vain to him for that philosophy which a man needs if he is to know how to notice once what he has seen everyday.) See, Rousseau, Du contrat social et autres oeuvres politiques, ed. J. Ehrard, p. 49; Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, Part I, p. 90 (Cranston trans.). Bastiat was so impressed with this statement that he refers to it several times in the Economic Harmonies. ↩
“Protectionisme et communisme” (Protectionism and Communism) (January 1849, in CW2, pp. 235–65. Quote p. 256.https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2450#Bastiat_1573-02_1774. ↩
“Paresse et restriction” (Laziness and Trade Restrictions) Libre-Échange, 16 January 1848. ↩
A near final draft of this new translation is available here https://oll.libertyfund.org/pages/cw5. Unfortunately it is not possible at this stage to link to the specific paragraph in which the quotation is located. However, we can link to the older Foundation for Economic Education 1964 edition for comparison purposes. To find the passages quoted from the online draft we suggest you do a key word search on the webpage. ↩
As a believer in natural rights Bastiat thought that every individual had an inherent right to defend themselves and their property from attack by others, or what he called “le droit individuel de légitime défense” (the individual’s right to legitimate self-defense). This right existed prior to the existence of any state or other social organisation and was only limited by the individual’s obligation not to initiate the use of force against others. He thought these pre-existing rights were “la Personnalité, la Liberté et la Propriété” ((the rights to) the person (or “personhood,” i.e. to life), liberty, and property). See EH2 XVII "Public and Private Services”. ↩
See Bastiat’s famous definition of the state as “the great fiction” in “L’État" (The State) (Journal des débats, Sept. 1848): “L’Etat, c’est la grande fiction à travers laquelle tout le monde s’efforce de vivre aux dépens de tout le monde” (The State is the great fiction by which everyone endeavors to live at the expense of everyone else), in CW2, p. 97. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2450#Bastiat_1573-02_753 ↩
“Funestes illusions. Les citoyens font vivre l’État. L’État ne peut faire vivre les citoyens" (Disastrous Illusions. The citizens give life to the state. The state cannot give life to the citizens), Journal des Economistes, 15 March 1848, T. 19, no. 70, pp. 323–33; ES3.24 in CW3, pp. 384–99. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2731#lf1573-03_label_876 ↩
See “The Format of the Economic Sophisms,” in the Introduction to CW3, pp. li-lii. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2731#lf1573-03_head_035. ↩
See “The Use of Economic Stories to explain Economic Ideas” in Appendix 1 of EH. ↩
See my essay on Molinari’s idea that economists should be the “bookkeepers of politics” who would draw up a balance sheet of the costs and benefits of things like wars and revolutions, as well as economic policies like tariff protection and government make-work schemes. “Gustave de Molinari on Economists as the Bookkeepers of Politics: “Unfortunately, no one listens to economists” (1852)” (23 Apr. 2020) http://davidmhart.com/liberty/Essays/Molinari-PoliticalBookkeeping1852.html. ↩
Chateaubriand, Mémoires d’outre-tombe (Paris: Eugène et Victor Penaud, 1850), vol. 11, Conclusion. L’idée chrétienne est l’avenir du monde”, p. 491. ↩