I See Unseen People

Some of my friends are probably tired of hearing me talk about “unintended consequences” and similar things which are based on the understanding that we only work with a small piece of the picture at a time–and so can be largely blind. From the WSJ comes a bit of support:

But what about compassion and empathy? Compassion is defined as a feeling of deep sympathy for those stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering; empathy is the ability to share in another’s emotions, thoughts and feelings. Hence, a compassionate judge would tend to base his or her decisions on sympathy for the unfortunate; an empathetic judge on how the people directly affected by the decision would think and feel. What could be wrong with that?

Frederic Bastiat answered that question in his famous 1850 essay,What is Seen and What is Not Seen.” There the economist and member of the French parliament pointed out that 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.” Bastiat further noted that “[t]here is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: The bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.”

We do realize the unseen effects are sometimes very difficult to know, but the writer gives us some examples, one of which follows:

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.

Empathy (feeling along with someone in understanding/identifying with them regarding their issues) is needful in parents, among others, but dangerous in judges.

Maybe Amity Schlaes can be persuaded to write a sequel to her book The Forgotten Man. Let’s call it The Unseen Man and go from there.