The Corner

Great Minds Think Alike Dept.

From my column (first appeared in the LAT):

Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas. That may exhaust my French-phrase quota for the year, but it’s worth it. The saying is the title of an essay by 19th-century French economist Frédéric Bastiat and means “that which is seen, and that which is not seen.”

Bastiat’s essay is most famous for the “parable of the broken window,” in which a young boy shatters a shopkeeper’s window and, after some initial outrage, the villagers conclude that the rascal helped the local economy. Why?

Because if no one broke windows, window makers would be out of business, and if window makers were out of business, they wouldn’t buy any more bread or shoes, hurting the bakers and cobblers. So the six francs the shopkeeper must spend for a new window is really a boon to the community.

The problem with this argument can be gleaned from the title of Bastiat’s essay. By counting the money the shopkeeper spends to replace a perfectly good window (that which is seen), we ignore the money he might have spent on something else (that which is unseen). The shopkeeper might have instead dropped six francs on new shoes, a book, or a bonus for his assistant. Those who celebrate the broken window as a generator of growth take “no account of that which is not seen.”

From Caroline Baum’s column:

Transferring money from taxpayers to car buyers is exactly that: a transfer. The money taken from taxpayers can’t be used for something else.

This is the lesson of Frederic Bastiat’s essay, “That Which is Seen, and That Which is Unseen.” Bastiat, a 19th century French political economist, tells the story of a shopkeeper who has to hire a glazier to repair a broken window, providing work and income for him in the process. That’s what is seen.

What is unseen is what the shopkeeper would have done if he didn’t have to pay the glazier. He might have bought shoes for his children, providing income for the shoemaker, who in turn could buy leather to produce more shoes. The glazier’s gain is the shoemaker’s loss. There is no net gain, no job or income creation, from this transaction.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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