Enslaved to “Progress”

Written by Marc Neilsen on September 30th, 2009

Probably the greatest lesson to be learned from Fredric Bastiat is that government policy always has seen and unseen consequences. While most legislators concern themselves with what is seen, the wise will probe those issues which remain largely unseen.

Bastiat’s well-known example of a broken window demonstrates the contrast between the seen and unseen. While one laborer (the glazier) may find the accident to be profitable, other laborers in the community are disadvantaged according to the priority given the glazier. This is an important concept, for Bastiat is not only arguing for the welfare of the individuals affected, but the entire community: “Destruction is not profitable,”(3) and such actions have far-reaching effects. When any amount of economic benefit is given to one individual, it is being taken from another- better yet, the economic aid isn’t really even given, it is merely transferred.

What is unseen is the effect that centralized planning has on peers and competitors of those businesses or individuals benefited by the government’s policy. After all, “public spending is always a substitute for private spending”- while the legislation does encourage spending (that is seen), the unseen consequences are that in order to have public spending, private funds must be exhausted and individuals disadvantaged.

Centralized planning enslaves us to a false notion of “progress.” While the aim may appear noble enough (i.e. subsidizing the arts), the results of such government action are most always disappointing, for in order to bring a profit to one, the profits of others must be sacrificed. Is this real progress? Can wealth be created under the direction or centralized planning, or is such “growth” nothing more than transfers of money?


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