“In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.” -Frédéric Bastiat
As a diehard libertarian at the ever so statist UC Berkeley, it is fair to say that I’ve indulged in an ample serving of political arguments over the years. Tabling on Sproul Plaza, the central hub of the eccentric California campus, always makes for an interesting experience– especially when clad in Students For Liberty gear and holding provocative signs about the day’s hot button issue.
From my argumentative experience, advocates of state intervention tend to boil down complicated policy issues to simplistic narratives to bolster their position. Are you against the minimum wage? Well, then, you’re also against the poor! Not an advocate of universal health care? Then, neither are you an advocate for the impoverished ill! Government cheerleaders conflate opposing a policy to opposing its noble (yet misguided) intention. Every time I find myself on the receiving end of such a passionate punch line, I wait patiently to elucidate the complexity of the issue, to trace how the status quo is the result of failed policies and how further intervention would be, in the words of Robert LeFevre, the “disease” of government “masquerading as its own cure.” Sadly, most of the time my opponent will stomp away with the last word before I even have the chance to open my mouth. Nuance, after all, takes too long to explain. Thus is the central problem with communicating free market ideas.
Libertarians are excellent at peeling the odorous layers of the political onion back to its rotten root of government intervention. However, the trouble arises when communicating the intricate manners in which government polices pollutes society to others. The crux of the problem comes down to the distinction that 18th century economist Frédéric Bastiat made between the “seen” and the “not seen.” Proponents of government intervention typically only consider the “seen” effects of a given policy without taking into account the its unforeseen unintended consequences. Returning to a previous example, advocates of the minimum wage see the policy’s immediate effect of poor workers receiving slightly higher wages. However, they fail to consider the unseen trade-off of higher unemployment the policy brings along, a tragedy that would have Milton Friedman turning in his grave. Sadly, this is just one unintended consequence of one government policy. Every action the state makes has “effects [that] emerge only subsequently,” as Bastiat put it. From foreign military intervention with blowback to the War on Drugs with the violence in Mexico, the list is never-ending.
The problem of the “not seen” can also be seen (no pun intended) in political discourse surrounding the economy. Government interventionists are quick to blame markets for society’s ills because they fail to consider the unseen effects of its shifts. President Barack Obama was guilty of this fallacy recently when he implied that technology such as ATM machines cause unemployment because “businesses have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers.” While the immediate effect of bank tellers losing their jobs to an ATM is seen in the President’s example, what is not seen is the money saved by customers and employers to spend on more goods and services. Thus, contrary to Obama’s beliefs, this penny-pinching process actually spurs economic growth, as excellently explained in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by economist Russell Roberts. While the unseen is easily understood by libertarian geeks with a passion for free market economics, it becomes difficult to communicate this idea to bleeding hearts with closed minds and short attention spans.
Thus, I believe that the main obstacle to achieving a free society is a comprehensive one. Pundits and politicians are too quick to jump on the legislative bandwagon because they fail to understand the damaging skid marks their veering carriage leaves behind. The only solution in my mind is to somehow make the “not seen” seen, as paradoxical as it sounds. Libertarians must convey the harmfulness of government intervention and helpfulness of market forces to the masses in a concise and effective manner, without requiring a reading of the collected works of F.A. Hayek. But, how can one make the blind see? It is to that question I will not give the pretense of knowledge.
What do you think?
Do libertarians necessarily have to make the “not seen” seen to affect change in politics and achieve a free society? If so, what is the most effective technique to accomplish this enormous task?