Bastiat on the Seen and the Unseen

Bastiat is justly famous for the idea of “the seen” (ce qu’on voit) and “the unseen” (ce qu’on ne voit pas) which was the title of the last book he wrote before his untimely death on Christmas Eve 1850. It was an original contribution to the idea of opportunity cost (which Tony de Jasay believed he in fact invented) which was brilliantly described in his witty and deeply insightful booklet. Less well known is the fact that he had been developing the idea over the course of the previous ten years and that it had a richness and depth which has not been fully appreciated – “not seen” you might say. I believe it was also a crucial part of his treatise on economic theory, Economic Harmonies on which he was working when he wrote his booklet What is Seen and What is Not Seen.

In this paper “Bastiat on the Seen and the Unseen: An Intellectual History” I explore the history of the development of his idea and some of its related concepts. One of these is the idea that economic acts (often interventions by the state) create a series of interlocking and sequential “effects” or “consequences” which flow outwards into other sectors of the economy. These effects are separated in time and space from the initial act and are often hard to observe. Some are close by in time and space and can be easily “seen” by even the untrained eye. Others however are stretched out across space and time and can be quite subtle in their impact. Thus they are hard to discern and are largely “unseen” except for the “good economists” who have been trained in the complexities of market processes.

As he often did with his original ideas, Bastiat developed a complex “cluster” of terms and concepts to describe and explain his ideas about how the economy functioned. He did this with his theory of “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), and for each of these “clusters” I have created a visual concept map to help the student of Bastiat’s work understand it better. They can be found here. I have now done the same for his idea of “the seen” and “the unseen.”

See a larger version

Bastiat was a very skilled wordsmith and loved to make puns and other plays on words, and create many allusions to related terms and concepts. This was part of his “rhetoric of liberty” and reflected his great love of literature and his masterful command of language. 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.

This paper is part of a broader project I have underway to reclaim Bastiat as a significant economic theorist, after his abject dismissal by scholars such as Joseph Schumpeter (“I do not hold that he was a bad theorist. I hold that he was no theorist.”) a view which has been repeated endlessly by people who I think have not actually read the man’s work in either English or French.

As he observed in chapter 12 on “the right to work and the right to a profit” in WSWNS:

“Not to understand political economy is to let oneself 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.”

My “Farewell to America” tour (January 2020)

As part of my “Farewell to America” tour in January 2020 I gave the following talks and papers on my way back to Australia:

  1. On Bastiat at the Political Economy Project at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire
  2. On Bastiat at the American Institute for Economic Research, Great Barrington, Massachusetts
  3. On classical liberal class analysis at the Adam Smith Center and the School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University
  4. On the history of the classical liberal tradition at the Mannkal Economic Education Foundation, Perth, Western Australia

David’s lecture on Bastiat
[David’s lecture on Bastiat at the AIER]

(1.) Dartmouth College: “Bastiat’s Economic Harmonies: A Reassessment after 170 Years.”

At Dartmouth College, New Hampshire: “Bastiat’s Economic Harmonies: A Reassessment after 170 Years.” A paper given to the Political Economy Project at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire (7 Jan. 2020). This paper is a summary of what I have learned about the originality and importance of Bastiat as an economic theorist after having completed the manuscript of volume 5 of the Collected Works of Bastiat for Liberty Fund in September 2020. It builds upon a “Liberty Matters” discussion I organised on this topic earlier in the year when I invited leading scholars of Bastiat’s economic thought (Donald J. Boudreaux, Guido Hülsmann, and Joseph T. Salerno) to give their assessment of his work. See the discussion. In my paper I talked about Bastiat’s importance as a leading classical liberal figure and the striking radicalism of his thought. I also explain why I think he is underrated as an economic, political, and social theorist but justly recognised as one of the greatest economic journalists and popularizers of economic ideas who has ever lived. I include in the paper a number of key passages from his writings to illustrate my claims. See the paper in HTML and PDF; and also the lecture slides PDF. The talk was videoed but has not been released to my knowledge.

(2.) American Institute for Economic Research, Great Barrington, Massachusetts: “Bastiat on Harmony and Disharmony”

At the American Institute for Economic Research, Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Here I gave a paper on my reconstruction of what Bastiat’s great unfinished works on Harmony and Disharmony might have looked like had he lived long enough to complete them. These never finished works might rank alongside Lord Acton’s much anticipated History of Liberty as one of the most important classical liberal books never written. I also was interviewed by Jeff Tucker on the importance, originality, and radicalism of Bastiat which appears as a three part podcast.

“Bastiat on Harmony and Disharmony” – a talk given at the AIER (20 January, 2020). In this nearly book-length paper I explore the connection between harmony and disharmony in the thought of Bastiat. The interconnections between the two show that Bastiat was never a crude “optimist” as many of his critics have argued. Given the presence of “plunder” and “disharmony” in human relations throughout history Bastiat understood that harmony could and had been disrupted or prevent from occurring – hence his desire to write a book on The History of Plunder to explain how this had taken place and what it had meant for human flourishing. In spite of these impediments, the potentially “harmonious” nature of human relationships kept bursting through in the form of markets and other social interactions between individuals. He thought this needed to be described and explained in at least two works – one on “social harmony” broadly understood (legal, social, political), and another on the very important subset of harmony, namely “economic harmonies”. In Bastiat’s theory of history there was a constant tension between the forces or factors tending towards “disharmony” (disturbing factors) and those tending towards “harmony” (restorative factors) which I explore in some detail. The end result I believe is a very sophisticated and rich social theory which has not been properly appreciated by historians of thought in general and libertarians in particular. See the lecture in HTML and PDF 5.9MB; as well as the lecture slides PDF. The video of the proceedings is here and on Youtube.

Following the talk, I was interviewed by Jeff Tucker on the life and thought of Frédéric Bastiat which appears in three parts.

  1. Part 1: “Who was Claude-Frédéric Bastiat?” Part1
  2. Part 2: “Who was Claude-Frédéric Bastiat” Part 2
  3. Part 3: “Insights into Bastiat’s Libertarianism” Part 3

(3.) Singapore: “Understanding Class Divisions in Society: A Classical Liberal Approach”

In Singapore I gave a talk on how classical liberal class analysis can explain many of the divisions which have arisen in modern societies; and was interviewed on the history of the classical liberal tradition and what this political tradition still has to offer us today.

“Understanding Class Divisions in Society: A Classical Liberal Approach”. This talk is part of the Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) Series co-organised by the Adam Smith Center and the School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University (20 Jan. 2020). According to socialists and Marxists, tensions and conflicts within society are the result of the very essence of the existence of private property and free market relationships between individuals (especially wage labour). In a “capitalist” society these tensions become so great that they give rise to “classes” which contend for power and profits and eventually result (according to the Marxists) in class warfare and ultimately revolution. The classical liberal tradition on the other hand also has a theory of class and class conflict, but these tensions and conflicts are the result of political and other coercive interventions in the economy. In this talk I explore the kinds of problems and tensions created by government intervention the economy, how they give rise to “class conflict” (class here being defined politically rather than economically), and how this different way of looking at the world can help us understand and explain the cause of many tensions and conflicts which are afflicting societies today. The five examples of social tensions and conflicts caused by governments which I discuss in the talk include:

  1. different groups fighting over control of limited resources (taxes) in order to get benefits for themselves
  2. different groups trying to get laws passed by the government to further their own vision of “the good society” and to exclude or harm groups they oppose
  3. different regions of nation states trying to free themselves from central control and taxation, and seeking autonomy
  4. groups which oppose the “capitalist system” (the free market and liberal society) and which seek to either overthrow it or radically change it so it conforms to their ideas of how a future society should be structured and run
  5. the most powerful groups in society who wish to use the power of the state to pursue their own interests at an international level

See the lecture in [ HTML ] and [ PDF ]. A video of the talk is on Facebook.

I was also interviewed by Bryan Cheang, head of the Adam Smith Centre , on the history of the classical liberal tradition (not yet online).

(4.) The Mannkal Economic Education Foundation, Perth, Western Australia: “An Introduction to the Classical Liberal Tradition: People, Ideas, and Movements”.

“An Introduction to the Classical Liberal Tradition: People, Ideas, and Movements”. A talk given at the Mannkal Economic Education Foundation, Perth (30 January, 2020). In this talk I survey for Mannkal’s incoming students (for northern hemisphere readers the academic year in Australia starts at the end of summer, i.e February/March) the long history of the classical liberal tradition and its key ideas. I discuss the long history of the Classical Liberal tradition (CLT) which goes back over 400 years; how it has evolved over this period in reaction to the different kinds of oppression people have suffered under; and the problem we in the present face with defining what is meant by “liberalism” (hence the need for what I call “hyphenated” liberalism.” I argue that there have been 4 main periods in the evolution of CL ideas, beginning in the 1640s and continuing into 1680s (the English Civil War and Revolution in the 1640s (1647-49); and the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688-89); the 1750s-1790s (the “trans-Atlantic” Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions; the liberal reforms of the19th century 1815-1914 (the period of so-called “Classical Liberalism”; and the post-WW2 liberal / libertarian renaissance. I argue that there are two sets of ideas wee have to take into account: the things CLs were Against and the things they were For. It is in relation to the latter that I present my list of the “Twelve Key Concepts of CL”. Although the achievements of the CLT have been immense, it seems that that CL might be losing the battle of ideas today.

I have given versions of this talk for over a decade and I am currently re-writing and expanding it (as well as adding a section on liberalism in Australia). See the documents listed here “Study Guides on the Classical Liberal Tradition”, especially the section on “The 12 Key Concepts of Liberty”. An important summary of CL ideas and movements can be found in the Cato Institute’s The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism (2008) which is now online, along with my selection (with links) of the key entries and also here.
See also the PDF of my Mannkal talk overheads and Further Reading.

In addition to the talk, I ran a workshop for the Mannkal students in which we conducted a close reading of my new translation and edition of Bastiat’s perhaps best-known essay “The Law” (1850). See “Frédéric Bastiat, The Law (June 1850): A New Translation by David M. Hart with a Reader’s Guide to the Text” (with discussion questions and key passages) PDF.

Papers given at the Libertarian Scholars Conference, NYC, 21 Sept. 2019.

Was Molinari a true Anarcho-Capitalist?

(1.) “Was Molinari a true Anarcho-Capitalist?: An Intellectual History of the Private and Competitive Production of Security”. A paper given at the Libertarian Scholars Conference, NYC, 21 Sept. 2019 [Full paper HTML and PDFSlidesHandout ]. See the abstract of the paper below.

Some Thoughts on an ‘Austrian Theory of Film’: Ideas and Human Action in a Film about Frédéric Bastiat

(2.) “Some Thoughts on an ‘Austrian Theory of Film’: Ideas and Human Action in a Film about Frédéric Bastiat”. A paper given at the Libertarian Scholars Conference, NYC, 21 Sept. 2019. [Full paper in HTML and PDFSlides ] [ ScreenplayIllustrations ].

Abstract: When thinking about the problems a filmmaker faces when trying to make a “movie of ideas” I was struck by the relevance of the works of two economists, that of Ludwig von Mises’ theory of “human action” and Frédéric Bastiat’s theory of “the seen and the unseen,” in helping the filmmaker think about the problems of depicting economic ideas and economic actions in a visual medium like film. It made me think that perhaps we should develop an “Austrian theory of Film” to help us do this. If there can be a feminist theory of film and a Marxist theory of film, why not an Austrian theory of film?

Mises is relevant because according to his theory of human action people act upon the ideas they have about what their interests are (in many cases these are economic interests), what their alternatives might be, and how best they can attempt to satisfy those interests given their scarce resources and other options. In essence then, human action is based upon the ideas people hold. Bastiat is relevant because the ideas people hold in their heads are a textbook example of what is invisible to outsiders, in other words they are “the unseen” perhaps even the unseeable, yet the actions which people take based upon the ideas they have about themselves, their interests, and the world around them can be “seen” in the actions they take.

A few questions I pose and attempt to answer are: can the filmmaker use these theories about economic behavior to make an interesting film with economic themes? can the ordinary film viewer correctly infer the ideas which lie behind a person’s choices and actions as depicted in a film? and how subtle should a screenplay writer or director be in giving the viewer hints (or what I cake visual “nudging”)? I use the screenplay I have have written about Bastiat’s activities during the revolution of 1848 and the Second Republic, called “Broken Windows”, to discuss these and other matters. See the screenplay, “Broken Windows” and the accompanying “illustrated essay” of the life and times of Bastiat.

Some Key Terms used by Bastiat in his Economic Theory

Here are the “concept maps” or what I call “vocabulary clusters” of some of Bastiat’s key ideas which I have drawn up to assist me in my editing and translating work. I have done ones for Class, Disturbing Factors, Harmony and Disharmony, Human Action, and Plunder (images below).

What the digitization of the collected works of Bastiat and the compilation of those texts into one searchable file allowed me to do were the following things:

  1. to check the consistency of our and previous translations (Stirling, FEE) – I found that key terms (like “le ricochet” or “human action”) were not translated consistently
  2. to note when a key term was first used and to track his use of it over time
  3. to note the other terms which he associated with it, what I call “clusters”, which often involved related terms or opposite terms

My conclusion is that Bastiat developed a rich and diverse vocabulary of terms which was unique to him, which appeared in an advanced state for the first time in early 1845 in two articles he wrote before he entered the orbit of the Parisian economists, and which evolved slightly over the course of the final six years of his life.

I have identified a number of such “vocabulary clusters” of key words for some of his main ideas which are listed below. I used the “mind mapping” software “Scrapple” to show the relationships between the words in a visual way. I have completed five so far (class, disturbing factors, harmony and disharmony, human action, and plunder) and have plans to do a dozen more on the ricochet effect, the domains of the community (or the commons) and of private property, the social mechanism vs. mechanics, the apparatus of exchange, service for service, the seen and the unseen, responsibility and solidarity, perfectibility and progress, sophisms and the dupes, the telling of stories to explain economic concepts.


The Books on Harmony and Disharmony Bastiat never wrote

It is not well known that Bastiat planned to write a multi-volume treatise on “the harmonies” and “the disharmonies” which he observed at work both in the economy and in the broader society which surrounded it. This treatise would have a volume or volumes on the “social harmonies,” the “economic harmonies”, and the various “disharmonies” which disturbed, or prevented from appearing, these social and economic harmonies. The volume on “the disharmonies” would also have included a “history of plunder” where Bastiat would analyze how the practice of plunder (la spoliation) had emerged in Europe and how it evolved into the system of “legal plunder” which existed in his own day.

Sadly, Bastiat was not able to even complete the first part of this ambitious project before he died at the age of 49, probably from throat cancer. What we know as the book Economic Harmonies was only half finished – he himself published a volume with the first 10 chapters in early 1850, and his fiends cobbled together an expanded edition using drafts and sketches of chapters they found among Bastiat’s papers which they published posthumously in mid-1851. The latter is the edition readers today know. He never wrote the volume on the Social Harmonies and left several essays and sketches of his theory and history of plunder.

I discuss the ideas behind this ambitious project and attempt a reconstruction of what it might have looked like (also see the list of chapters below), had he been able to finish it, in a new “paper” on “Bastiat on Harmony and Disharmony” which is available online. It is actually more like a “short book” than a paper at 114K words, 316 pp.! See

  1. HTML version: <>
  2. PDF version: <> [5.9MB]

I have also drawn up some “concept maps” to show the very original and specific vocabulary Bastiat developed to discuss his thoughts on these topics. This vocabulary was sometimes hidden or glossed over in the two previous translations of Economic Harmonies which we have (the Stirling translation of the 1860s and the FEE translation of the 1960s). These concept maps can be found in an Appendix to the above paper. I include the one on “Harmony and Disharmony” here.

A Reconstruction of what might have been

I have tried to reorganize Bastiat’s chapters and other writings into something more coherent which follows his plan for a three volume work which dealt with “Social Harmonies,” “Economic Harmonies,” and “The Disharmonies” or “A History of Plunder.”

EH1 = 1st edition of Economic Harmonies (1850)
EH2 = 2nd edition of 1851
WSWNS = What is Seen and What is Not Seen (1850)
ES1 = Economic Sophisms (1st series) (1846)
ES2 = Economic Sophisms (2nd series) (1848)

Volume 1: Social Harmonies:

  1. The two mottoes/sayings [EH2 XII] – one for all (the principle of fellow feeling) and everyone for themselves (the principle of individualism)
  2. Responsibility – solidarity [EH2 XX and XXI]
  3. Personal/Self interest or the social drive [EH2 XXII]
  4. Perfectibility [sketch EH2 XXIV]
  5. Public opinion (in chap. XXI “Solidarity”)
  6. liberty and equality [draft chap.]
  7. The relationship between political economy and morality [sketch EH2 XXV]
  8. The relationship between political economy and politics
  9. The relationship between political economy and legislation
  10. The relationship between political economy and religion. [sketch EH2 XXIII Evil]

Volume 2: Economic Harmonies:

  1. theoretical matters
    1. organisation [EH2 I]
    2. needs efforts, satisfactions [EH2 II and III]
    3. exchange [EH2 IV]
    4. value [EH2 V]
    5. wealth [EH2 VI]
    6. capital [EH2 VII]
    7. private property [EH2 VIII]
    8. communal property (the Commons) [EH2 VIII]
    9. property in land [EH2 IX]
    10. competition [EH2 X]
    11. Producer – Consumer [EH2 XI]
    12. The theory of Rent [EH2 XIII]
  1. policy/applied matters
    1. On money [Damned Money pamphlet]
    2. On credit [Free Credit debate with P]
    3. On wages [EH2 XIV]
    4. On savings [EH2 XV]
    5. On population [EH2 XVI]
    6. Private services, public services [EH2 XVII]
    7. On taxes [WSWNS 3 Taxes]
    8. On machines [WSWNS 8 Machines]
    9. Freedom of exchange – (lecture given at Taranne Hall to students in 1847??)
    10. On intermediaries [WSWNS 6 The Middlemen]
    11. Raw materials – finished products [ ES1 21 “Raw Materials” (c. 1845)]
    12. On luxury [WSWNS 11 Thrift and Luxury]

Volume 3: Disharmonies, or The History of Plunder:

  1. Plunder [sketch in EH2 XVIII] (conclusion ES1, ES2 1 and 2)
  2. War [sketch in EH2 XIX]
  3. Slavery [ES2 1]
  4. Theocracy [ES2 1]
  5. Monopoly [ES2 1]
  6. Governmental exploitation [“functionaryism”]
  7. False fraternity or Communism [his anti-socialist pamphlets]