May 12, 2010

Frederic Bastiat nailed it...

Someone at The Corner, discussing the latest supreme Court nomination, and the way nominations now are so much about "empathy" etc., pointed to this excellent piece, The 'Unseen' Deserve Empathy, Too.

...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."

This observation is just as true for judges as it is for economists. As important as compassion and empathy are, one can have these feelings only for people that exist and that one knows about -- that is, for those who are "seen."

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....

We see this all the time. Or, rather, it's there but we don't see it. We refuse to see it. For instance, appeasing terrorists or tyrants now may seem to bring "peace," but it kills others who are unseen because of time or space. We see and feel compassion for the poor Mexicans who come across the border, but we can't see the poor African who would like to come and can't. Nor do we see the lost possibilities when we fail to pressure Mexico towards economic reforms that might allow her people opportunities at home.

The list could go on and on...

Posted by John Weidner at May 12, 2010 5:05 PM
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