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Why Government Must Be Small: The Unseen May 30, 2009

Posted by federalist in Government, Judiciary.
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John Hasnas illuminates Frederic Bastiat’s 1850 essay, “That Which is Seen, and That What is Not Seen.”  An essential point of these essays is that when government acts to pass or enforce a law it (hopefully) does so to achieve some positive result.  However, it is difficult if not impossible to foresee all of the secondary and collateral consequences of an action, which may be detrimental to others.  These “unseen” victims of action or inaction deserve as much consideration as the proximate beneficiaries of an action.

Big government and its advocates tend to tout the positive primary effects of acts.  They downplay negative side effects, and they tend not to temper their enthusiasm for action to effect positive change with the unpredictable and unknowable secondary effects.  This Knightian uncertainty is a fundamental argument for minimalist government.

Hasnas gives some excellent examples that should give the current government pause:

One can have compassion for workers who lose their jobs when a plant closes. They can be seen. One cannot have compassion for unknown persons in other industries who do not receive job offers when a compassionate government subsidizes an unprofitable plant. The potential employees not hired are unseen.

One can empathize with innocent children born with birth defects. Such children and the adversity they face can be seen. One cannot empathize with as-yet-unborn children in rural communities who may not have access to pediatricians if a judicial decision based on compassion raises the cost of medical malpractice insurance. These children are unseen.

One can feel for unfortunate homeowners about to lose their homes through foreclosure. One cannot feel for unknown individuals who may not be able to afford a home in the future if the compassionate and empathetic protection of current homeowners increases the cost of a mortgage.

In general, one can feel compassion for and empathize with individual plaintiffs in a lawsuit who are facing hardship. They are visible. One cannot feel compassion for or empathize with impersonal corporate defendants, who, should they incur liability, will pass the costs on to consumers, reduce their output, or cut employment. Those who must pay more for products, or are unable to obtain needed goods or services, or cannot find a job are invisible.

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