Bryan Caplan  

The Seen, the Unseen, War, and Peace

First They Separated the Twins... From the AER...
Economists and libertarians often argue that foolish policies prevail because the benefits of government action are more visible than the costs.  To bolster their point, many reference Bastiat's classic essay, "What Is Seen and What is Not Seen."  Here's how Bastiat puts it:

In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a 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.


Yet this difference is tremendous; for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil.

I've loved this essay and line of argument for years.  But lately I've noticed an elephantine counter-example: war.  The immediate, visible consequences of war are horrifying.  I wouldn't even bother with a supporting quotation if Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front weren't so eloquent:

On the next floor below are the abdominal and spine cases, head wounds and double amputations.  On the right side of the wing are the jaw wounds, gas cases, nose, ear, and neck  wounds.  On the left the blind and the lung wounds, pelvis wounds, wounds in the joints, wounds in the testicles, wounds in the intestines.  Here a man realizes for the first time how many places a man can get hit.


A man cannot realize that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round.  And this is only one hospital, one single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia.  How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible.  It must all be lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands.  A hospital alone shows what war is.
If people judged war purely on the basis of its obvious, immediate consequences, then, pacifism would be almost universal.  To sell war, you've got to convince people that its non-obvious, distant consequences are positively fantastic.  Contra Bastiat, though, it's ridiculously easy to convince them of this.  If you tell people that the skies will fall if their country doesn't fight, they believe it - even though the worst case scenario is usually the loss of some territory most people can't even find on a map.

My best explanation is that Bastiat's seen/unseen fallacy is not a general psychological tendency.  Instead, it's an expression of anti-market bias: Since people dislike markets, they're quick to dismiss claims about their hidden benefits.  When people are favorably predisposed to an institution, however, they're quite open to the possibility that it's better than it looks to the naked eye.  Government's a good example, but so are religion, medicine, and education. 

When it comes to the unseen benefits of war, there's actually a perfect storm of irrationality.  Not only do people like government, the institution responsible for running the war.  Support for war also neatly coheres with the public's anti-foreign bias.  If someone announces that killing a bunch of weirdos in another country will save the motherland and cure bad breath, we're inclined to believe him - even if ghastly scenes from Erich Maria Remarque are right in front of our faces.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (27 to date)
Dain writes:

Maybe the fact that it's unseen is why empiricists often aren't libertarians.

Henry writes:

How many people do actually get to see the horrors of war? Consider that media coverage of the Vietnam War is widely considered to have reduced its popularity. Also, its justification of stopping the spread of Communism was difficult to understand as directly affecting the United States. Afghanistan and Iraq had simple alleged consequences. Get the terrorists who attacked us and protect us from weapons of mass destruction, respectively.

Steve Sailer writes:

Due to better media technology, we're now more familiar with war's effects, and it's harder to get masses of young men to volunteer. For example, in the 1990s, the Serbian Army had a hard time drafting young men from Belgrade due to mass draft evasion, so the Balkans Wars were largely fought by those who liked violence. Governments released prison inmates on condition they go to the war zone, recruited criminal gangs, and recruited soccer hooligan gangs.

The publication of realistic WWI-based works of literature around 1928-1929, such as All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, and so forth, made pacifism much more popular, especially in England and France (with unfortunate consequences in the 1930s).

Eric H writes:

All cases for intervention have saving the motherland as justification, whether it's killing weirdos or propping up the price of corn.

Kurbla writes:

People enjoy killing and watching murders; there are plenty of evidences for that, from gladiator games and inquisition, to modern box matches, but also culture: movies, books, comics, games children play, and also cruelty toward animals, hunt, dog fights, bullfighting, religious sacrifices of both human and animals etc.

On the other side, people clearly know the consequences. So, they have that emotional-rational gap like with adultery - i.e. it looks like people are in permanent search for excuse to do what they really want to do.

Now, I do not know even if it is good that culture admits that or not. On one side, people can understand and change their behaviour if they openly accept it. On the other side, with such acceptance, they'll lose the ability to stigmatize and punish the most violent individuals and I'm not sure humanity can afford that. I don't know.

Kurbla writes:


    "On one side, people can understand and change their behaviour if they openly accept it. "

It should be:

    "On one side, people can understand and change their behaviour if they openly admit their motives. "

Huge difference.

Les writes:

No-one can deny the catastrophic horrors of war. By all means war should be a last resort.

But if a country is attacked how can war be avoided? For example, the U.S. was attacked at Pearl Harbor by Japan, and the U.S. has been attacked many times by Islamic extremists, including two bombings of the World Trade Center. Israel has been attacked by several of its neighbors. Russia was attacked by the Nazis. Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany.

Should these countries have yielded to their attackers, rather than fighting back?

rpl writes:


Do you really need the difference between symmetric warfare between nation states and asymmetric warfare with a terrorist group explained to you? We've only been talking about it for 9 years now.

Alex J. writes:

It's all well and good that "the worst case scenario is usually the loss of some territory", but the actual worst case scenario is the loss of all of your territory, all of your women raped and your men murdered, your co-religionists sent up the chimneys. Our willingness to rally round the flag is from our earlier days when this sort of warfare was much more common. It's thankfully rarer now, but believing that peace is better than war doesn't make you a pacifist.

ajb writes:

Whenever I read these sorts of comments by Bryan, I realize that we live on different planets and I throw my hands up in helplessness. Frankly, Bryan's anti-patriotic, anti-nationalist, pacifist, and cosmopolitan posts have done the most to make me question my support for markets and free trade. If these are what the staunchest defenders of markets believe then perhaps the anti-market forces are right. Better to suffer some inefficiency in the economy than to deal with people who believe in Pacifism even in the face of aggression (a position Bryan has defended often). I'm not quite there yet but if more market liberals were like Bryan, it wouldn't take much to sign me on to the other side. Fortunately, Bryan's favorite city state -- Singapore is unabashedly authoritarian and nationalistic demonstrating that one doesn't need wacko pacifism to have free markets.

Sam Schulman writes:

AJB - don't worry about Bryan. I think Rousseau was the first to observe that only nations make private property, and thus free markets, laws governing exchange, etc., possible. Even though it was Rousseau, he was perfectly right.
Bryan is, like most human beings, blind to the source of what he values because it is unflattering to him.

War is awful, usually the result of gross human stupidity - and gross human stupidity is unavoidable. Just because Bryan would sacrifice his freedom and his property - after he has already tried to see if sacrificing yours and mine wouldn't do the trick - doesn't mean that he's not right about supporting free markets and free trade. He's just human, with the same human weaknesses and idiocies that cause so many wars. He values peace, he values his personal safety, and he wants to believe that peace is the most likely eventuality - as long as it's others who will "lose some property" (those who happen to live in the lost property can very well find it on a map - as long as it's not Bryan, that's ok).

The French who lost their freedom and lives in the Franco-Prussian War were avenged, in a way, by the German liberals who decided that German "Unification" was more important to them than political freedom. The difference was that the aggressors - the Germans - decided gaily on their goal and achieved it. In the same earlier war, the French - whose grandchildren died not in Capanesque "stupidity" but with a vivid memory of what defeat and occupation meant - were led badly by generals and were committed to war by an incompetent emperor. The lesson is not that they should not have resisted the Germans in 1870 - but they should have had better government and better intellectuals.

Bryan's commitment to peace is not compromised by the fact that he is promoting a policy of appeasement now that will make a terrible war not less but more likely. He's just smarter about some things - freedom - than he is about other things - the preconditions for freedom. He's a relative of the incompetent intellectuals who urged German liberals to accept Bismarck and who, in France, urged Frenchmen to seek glory and not question the quality of the Army. The German liberals were right to be liberals - the French public were right to seek to defend themselves. But being right is not the same as being effective, as our President is teaching us. You and I are right to value free markets and free trade. Don't blame freedom and free markets - blame Bryan and try to change his mind or shame him into being a better and wiser steward of the values we three cherish (and good luck with that!).

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

I had a long response typed out but I can't beat John Stuart Mill:

"War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself."

Of course, Bryan isnt a coward, which is the cheap shot JSM levels at pacifists (if he is, I'm an even lower animal, the chickenhawk) but there are any number of causes that Bryan could find through history that he would be willing to fight for. So why should no modern cause reach that threshold?

I certainly agree that war preparedness is both a tax and a temptation for unnecessary war, and a huge lever for the increase in the size, revenue, spending and intrusion of government. Overall I view America's military involvements as being a mixture of the bearably bad with the unavoidably necessary.

TTE writes:

I have to disagree with you, Prof. Caplan. I think the problem isn't that "since people dislike markets, they're quick to dismiss claims about their hidden benefits." The problem is that people can't imagine the benefits of markets. They don't even see what there is to dismiss. I think there are two types of unseen, the visible unseen (urgh, I know) and the invisible unseen. You're correct to point out that both the government alternative to the status quo and the market alternative to the status quo are unseen. But the unseen of the government is visible, that is, it's a vision that a rhetorically gifted salesman can create in the minds of voters. You can see the glories of conquest even though it is unseen. It's harder to imagine the unseen advantages of markets.

Here's an example. Take single payer vs. free market health care. A politician or journalist can describe his or her vision of single payer health care in a way that allows voters to see it as well. They can say, "This is how it will work and this is what it will do when it will do where it will do for this price." Voters can grasp that. A supporter of free market health care, however, will have to throw up his hands and say, "Hey, I don't know how it will work because you'll be free." People can't see it.

I'm probably not being very clear, but I don't think the problem in this case is a dislike of markets and a predisposition towards government. I think the problem is people's preference for walking in the wrong direction with the wrong map than the right direction with no map at all. The market demands the latter. It doesn't matter what they're inclined to favor; walking without a map is too freaky.

TTE writes:

The above may just be a convoluted explanation of anti-market bias, but I was trying to emphasize the rational element of it.

Tom writes:

Jeremy, excellent post.

Byran, you say "I've loved this essay and line of argument for years. But lately I've noticed an elephantine counter-example: war."

Maybe you only see the costs, not the benefits.
Most people do not want to be involved with war, but will do so when threatened. The benefits are very visible to most, as are the costs. Sometimes the costs outweigh the benefits, and vice-versa.

I think there is a multiplier on the benefit side which is uncertainty. How bad will it be if we do not fight. To a pacifist it is 0. To most people it is greater than 1.

Sheldon Richman writes:

Maybe people like the immediate effects (which few see vividly these days): giving one's life or limbs for the homeland.

darjen writes:

Some of the comments here are unwittingly a perfect example of what Brian is talking about.

Sam Schulman writes:

Jeremy of Alabama - You're right that war preparedness is a huge tax and a lever for govt. intrusion but not that is is "a temptation for unnecessary war." It was a tragic mistake for thoughtful people in the 20th century to think that the "war profiteers" and arms merchants caused war - when the causes were all around them. They focused on controlling arms, not controlling the human failings that produce war by credible threats and readiness. What a waste of effort went into the condemnation of "merchants of death."

And in terms of government intrusion - consider how much more government intrusion the subjects of the EU must now suffer in the name of appeasement. Free speech is severely limited, sometimes criminalized, inspectors of thought surround them, all so that no one who harbors violent intentions towards European democracy might be offended. Letting other nations do the defense spending and soldiering for them makes them no freer from their own militant (if not militaristic) governnment authorities.

Tim Starr writes:

That is hardly the worst-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is a fate like that of Carthage or Hiroshima. Furthermore, there's a great deal of difference between losing a war and not even fighting one in the first place. E.g., Austria and Czechoslovakia didn't fight the Nazis when they invaded; Finland did fight the Soviets when they invaded... See More. Where would you have rather spent WWII?

You are taking the perspective of a large imperial power when you say that the worst consequence is merely the loss of some distant territory, as only large imperial powers have small territories distant enough to be unfamiliar to most of their people. For small countries, any loss of territory will be familiar to its people. And for all such losses, the proper perspective to take is that of the people living in that territory, not its rulers.

This is perhaps most obvious in the case of civil wars, which perhaps most clearly do not fit your description. Since WWII, civil wars have been far more common than conventional wars. They have also been far more deadly, especially to civilians. Was the consequence of the Russian Civil War merely "the loss of some territory most people can't even find on a map"? Hardly. It was the loss of Russia, one of the largest land empires in the world. For the Russian people, the consequence was famine, politicide, and enslavement by a one-party police state for two generations. For the rest of the world, it was two generations of aggression by means of conventional invasion, terrorism, insurrection, guerilla warfare, and the establishment of child regimes which were often even more democidal than their parent (e.g., Maoist China, Democratic Kampuchea).

And that's just one example. Take one of the more civilized civil wars, the American civil war. If the North had lost, would the result really have been merely the loss of some territory no one had ever heard of? Hardly. It would've been the loss of the entire South, from Virginia to Texas, at the very least, not to mention the perpetuation of slavery for more than another century (as it was, slavery was re-instated in all but name after the Union ended its occupation of the South, and remained in place until after WWII).

Andrew_M_Garland writes:

"The immediate, visible consequences of war are horrifying."

But, they aren't immediate or visible. The call for war emphasizes patriotism and honor. Wounds and death are usually not seen, as those people are limited in their travel and not much seen in public until a war is well underway.

If the other nation is waging war on us, then we have to respond. We clearly favor building technology (cruise missiles, predator drones, battle robots) at high expense, rather than incur casualties.

Why do those other nations wage war? In the case of Iraq, most members of the army are forced to fight by a small but powerful faction. The faction recieves the benefits, and the population receives the losses. The more backward an economy, the less is the loss from sacrificing population.

Iraq marched 10,000+ children to their deaths sweeping mines with their bodies. They did not define this as a horrible loss, because they claimed that this was a direct route to heaven and salvation for the children.

I think Bastiat remains correct. People, and especially governments (powerful factions) value the immediate benefits and don't measure or value the offsetting losses.

Evan writes:

I've been noticing that the critics of this post tend to be citing examples of times when it was obviously necessary to go to war to defend from invasions (like France in WWI and the US after Pearl Harbor). But Bryan's post is about the ease of persuading people to engage in offensive war against a foe who has not directly attacked them.

I'll use WWII as an example since most people around the world are familiar with it, obviously the Axis needed to be stopped in WWII, but I doubt that in this case the people Bryan would be castigating aren't the Americans, British, etc, who decided to go to war in defense. Rather he would probably attack the foolish behavior of the Germans, Japanese, and Italians, who somehow let themselves be persuaded that trying to conquer the world would be a good idea.

Sam Schulman writes:

Evan, exactly right - and the fact that the French and British couldn't be persuaded to be bothered about German violations of the Versailles agreement and Italian violations of League of Nations resolutions - because it would have involved "engaging in offensive war against a foe who has not directly attacked them." If they had done so, the millions of lives lost in WWII (and the millions more that would have been lost had we not had the Bomb) need never have happened and should not have been allowed to happen.

ajb writes:

I'll regret adding this note because I observe from the comments that people's attitudes towards war are so polarized that arguing does no good.

But let me give you an example of where a hard offensive war would have done more good: North Korea.

A successful defeat of the Reds in North Korea even at the cost of many lives would probably have been better for Korea than what that country has had to endure and what we may have to endure if North Korea starts nuclear trouble in the future.

Similarly, fighting to defeat Mao at the end of WWII would have been less costly and better for China and the world than allowing the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

darjen writes:

ajb, those are mighty huge assumptions that are probably nowhere close to reality. I'm sorry, you just aren't very convincing.

For those talking about appeasement of Germany during WW2... I say that Hitler would have never even rose to power in the first place had it not been for the US military breaking the european stalemate in WW1. Excess military involvement in WW1 essentially caused WW2 to happen.

As far as the US "civil war" goes, I think it is likely that slavery would have died out anyway. Even if it didn't, fighting it didn't even come close to eliminating the injustice done against blacks. Slavery and Jim Crow were both backed by the military force of government, by the way.

darjen writes:

To expand more on your point about North Korea - It's yet another example of something that could have completely been left alone. Especially when you compare it to how Vietnam turned out. USA lost the Vietnam war, the communists took over, and as a country there is no doubt they are much better off than North Korea. USA could have stayed out of Vietnam completely, not killed anyone, and they would have come out even better than they are today.

Individuals in "Communist" China today are arguably more free in a lot of ways than in the USA. Blowing up most of their country fighting against Mao would have made everyone much worse off in the long run.

Tim Starr writes:

Actually, Bryan's rather closely echoing Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler about Czechoslovakia - specifically, his line about a faraway land of which we know nothing. I don't think this is accidental. Britain & France went to war against Germany because of the German invasion of Poland, not because of a direct threat.

Saying that South Vietnam today is better off than North Korea is like saying that Yugoslavia was better off than Albania during the 1980s. Such variation in communist regimes is a function of their dictators, not a result of whether they have or haven't been in wars within the past half-century. For the effects of the fall of South Vietnam (and Cambodia and Laos) to the Commies, you must look at the immediate aftermath: 3 million killed in democide, about 1 million refugees. That's what appeaseniks like Rothbard cheered for at the time.

The "inevitable demise of slavery without the Civil War" line is just a pro-slavery myth. The only thing that ended slavery in the South was Federal intervention, first in the form of Reconstruction then in the form of things like Eisenhower's federalization of the National Guard to enforce Brown v. the Board of Education and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.

mdc writes:

War does seem to have become far less popular as it has become more visible, so surely it just reinforces the point? No one in 1900 would have given a damn about a few hundred or a few thousand casualties in a decade of occupation. It would have barely warranted reporting.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top