“That Which Is Not Seen” (Part I)

I had told myself that I would not write (save the nightly journal of course) until I had completed my weeks of vigorous GRE prep (hey there, un-missed pal of high school math). But… give a girl a delayed flight home from Texas, and she’ll take an essay. Prudence did convince me to divide this train of thought into halves, however, and so here lies part one.

It is the tale of two Frenchmen and a common feature in the mirrors their writings held up to society. The contemporary American continuation of this motif will likely follow in a few days. If you are interested in history, economics, politics, America, love, or the French– read on!


Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas (Frédéric Bastiat)

In 1850, the French economist Bastiat penned a famous essay with the above title: “That which is seen and that which is not seen.” By way of straightforward reflection, he explicates many foundational (though admittedly counter-intuitive) economic lessons. See The Broken Window for a taste of this famous dish. However, the theme of each parable is simple, hinging upon his opening argument:

Between a good and a bad economist this constitutes the whole difference – the one takes account of the visible effect; the other takes account both of the effects which are seen, and also of those which it is necessary to foresee. Now this difference is enormous, for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favourable, the ultimate consequences are fatal, and the converse. Hence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good, which will be followed by a great evil to come, while the true economist pursues a great good to come, – at the risk of a small present evil… It is only in the long run that it learns to take account of the others. (emphasis added)

Such foresight, in my humble opinion, convicts a lot of policies that we have today: from welfare reform to environmental policy to education debates. But that’s not what I found so compelling about Bastiat’s lesson. I think that there is a deeper “that which is not seen” that we are currently ignoring to our peril. In fact, I think it can truthfully be said that this economic lesson–small present sacrifices for a greater future good–is only a phantom of the original lesson. It lies beyond the orb of economics and contracts, rather, it is the bedrock of our society.

We call it covenant.

And here, I switch to another Frenchman who had deliberately studied our nation ten years prior. His name is Alexis de Tocqueville, and his Democracy in America explores the fruitful garden of political, social, and familial associations that make our familiar (even “taken for granted”) national identity what it is. His insight is compelling:

In Europe almost all the disturbances of society arise from the irregularities of domestic life… But when the American retires from the turmoil of public life to the bosom of his family, he finds in it the image of order and of peace. There his pleasures are simple and natural, his joys are innocent and calm; and as he finds that an orderly life is the surest path to happiness, he accustoms himself without difficulty to moderate his opinions as well as his tastes. Whilst the European endeavors to forget his domestic troubles by agitating society, the American derives from his own home that love of order which he afterwards carries with him into public affairs. (emphasis added)

This “that which is not seen” is the family, whose sacred cathedral is the visible home. In that space, costs infused with love become benefits and the familial covenant is carried out in daily acts of mercy.

This, of course, is sweeping verbiage for doing the dishes even when it’s not my turn, making you soup when you’re sick, and carrying home armfuls of farmers market flowers “just because.” This daily exchange of love-labors for a more perfect home is the foundation and fulfillment of the true economist who takes all persons into account and “pursues a great good to come” in the contractual realm.

I have a little theory that the greatest purpose of economic trade is to enable this somehow more fully human trade to take place.

Yet, here’s the rub: when we forget that our identity is first found as sisters, brothers, brides, husbands, and children, then we carry that same disordered priority list into the public square. Something tells me that this is what a little nun in India had in mind when she once said:

The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.

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