David R. Henderson  

Bastiat's Insight on Government Inaction

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I've noticed in discussions--in person, on Facebook, and in blogs--how hard it is for most people to see that opposition to having the government subsidize or require activity X does not mean that one opposes activity X.

Frederic Bastiat addressed this in his classic article, "What is Seen and What Is Not Seen." He wrote [Paragraph 1.63]:

But, by an inference as false as it is unjust, do you know what the economists are now accused of? When we oppose subsidies, we are charged with opposing the very thing that it was proposed to subsidize and of being the enemies of all kinds of activity, because we want these activities to be voluntary and to seek their proper reward in themselves. Thus, if we ask that the state not intervene, by taxation, in religious matters, we are atheists. If we ask that the state not intervene, by taxation, in education, then we hate enlightenment. If we say that the state should not give, by taxation, an artificial value to land or to some branch of industry, then we are the enemies of property and of labor. If we think that the state should not subsidize artists, we are barbarians who judge the arts useless.

When I teach this article in class, I ask the students, who are almost all American, how many of them favor having government subsidize religion or requiring that people be religious. Typically no one raises his hand. Then I say:
Wow! That's really something. I'm going to go home tonight and say to my wife, "Babes, I have a class of 25 people and all of them are atheists." Did I get that right? Am I leaving something out?

Of course, they tell me what I left out and many of them look at me as if I'm an idiot. Why? Because it's obvious to them that one can be strongly religious, as many of them are, and yet strongly object to government promotion of religion.

What's interesting is that they're like most people in the sense that they don't generalize from the "obvious" case of religion." So what I try to do is get them to see how general this principle is. One can strongly object to the use of illegal drugs and yet think they should be legal. One can strongly object to U.S. taxpayers being forced to subsidize Israel's government without being "anti-Israel." One can strongly object to someone burning the American flag and yet think that they have the right to do what they wish with their own property. One can strongly object to racial discrimination and yet think that people should be free to discriminate. One can strongly object to gays getting married and yet think that gay people should be free to marry. Etc.

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COMMENTS (23 to date)
Ken B writes:

Part of it David is related to what sociologists call phatic speech. This is speech which has become detached from its literal meaning and is uttered to show the speaker is part of a group. If you sneeze I might bless you; this does not mean I believe in blessings. Most political speech -- especially of the soft-left concensus kind I think but your mileage may vary -- is phatic speech.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ken B,
Good point and I’ll remember that term. I think that’s a huge part of it. But another huge part of it is that people are genuinely confused. I was in a FB discussion last week in which people accused Ron Paul of hating Israel because he didn’t want the U.S. government to subsidize Israel. I could be wrong, but I believe that many of the people who made the accusation believed it.

Shangwen writes:

@Ken B and David:

Uwe Poerksen also documented this in great detail in his classic Plastic Words.

Regarding the post, the question is also what underlies this assumption? Is it because public subsidy has become the norm or baseline, so people cannot imagine otherwise; is it a bias favoring government's superior ability to deliver goods; or is it an ad hominem belief that those with beliefs different from one's own are barbarians?

To me, this is a further illustration that very few people really hold political beliefs. What the majority hold is a grab-bag of personal concerns, grudges, modest hopes, and irrational biases: e.g., the govt should pay for that, the govt should stay out of that, group X should be free to do N, group Y should be stopped from N, and they should fix my darn back lane.

Those who mostly advocate an elite view of political participation, in which everybody has a ton of information and makes rational decisions, deplore this--they see this as common ignorance and stupidity. But I look at this optimistically, since it is living proof that people's foremost concerns are their own lives and immediate circumstances, so they can only afford to respond to the "big issues" with hopelessly ill-advised slogans. Of course, there are negative consequences to that limit (e.g., Bryan's MOTRV, plus all the public choice issues), but the pressure on mere mortals to pass judgment on complex topics is in part an artefact of institutional hubris, not a moral imperative.

Ken B writes:

David: Thanks. I have been evangelizing for that term for 25 years ...

With emotional topics like Israel people often have other strong motives to resist persuasion. However with Ron Paul there is other evidence. I believe he condemned Lend-Lease. He later backed off, but that is the sort of thing that adds to any suspciaon of anti-Semitism (and brain damage).
As were the contents of some of the newsletters bearing his name.

This is one of the reasons why I have always thought Ron Paul an unhappy choice for America's Most Famous Libertarian.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ken B,
Interesting. I thought Lend-Lease was a really bad idea.

Ken B writes:

Wow. As being too much or too little? I can certainly sympathize with an 'it was too little' argument ...

Lend-Lease also had 2 phases: pre war and during the war (from an American perspective). Do you object to both?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ken B,
Yes, I object to both. And thanks for correcting my tense. I had no views about it at the time. :-)

Ken B writes:

Wee pedantic corrections are a service we offer :>

This sounds like a better topic for discussing over a beer (or twelve) than in blog comments. Suffice it to say I think L-L was both critical to the war and that at the time, the outcome being in doubt, some such support was obligatory.
It was a pragmatic move FDR could get sufficient support for. As you can see, accepting the totally standard conventional wisdom on this topic is another service we offer.

Matt writes:

This is the very reason I find it difficult to join in most political conversation. Sadly, I think when people make those kinds of assumptions, they are just playing the odds. The most worrisome thing about Ken B.'s idea of phatic speech is that it sounds exactly like English.

Gay marriage is a great example, because I know a lot of people with strong feelings on the issue, but no one has been able to explain the function of marriage in society to me (or at least not very well).

Still, the most infuriating example of this is when I heard a man talking about Republican opposition to welfare say, "If Republicans were more like Jesus they would give more to charity."

Mike writes:


The next time someone gives you that line, refer them to this book:

"Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compasionate Conservatism Who Gives, Who Doesn't, and Why It Matters"


David R. Henderson writes:

I don’t find that last thing about Republicans and charity as upsetting as you do. Notice that the speaker is talking about giving rather than being taxed. Of course, the speaker is probably not aware that conservatives are substantially more generous than social democrats. But the really upsetting thing to me would be for the speaker to say, “If Republicans were more like Jesus, they would advocate higher taxes."

david writes:

Robin Hanson has this hypothesis that politics is more about elevating the relative status of favored social classes, not ideal policy. Karl Smith wrote something similar on his blog a while ago, too.

It isn't a phenomenon limited to those favoring larger government. When the 53%/99% thing was floating around the Internet, there was some buzz about assorted upper-middle or rich opposing raising taxes on the rich, and then advocating a 'fair' level of taxation, and of course it turns out that their 'fair' level of tax is higher than even the proposed hike in tax rate they are protesting. Smith mentioned a celebrity of some sort doing so? It's not about how much absolute tax they think is fair to pay; it's about the perceived condemnation in the raising of the tax...

Ken B writes:

Never one to let sleeping dogs lie, I must ask DRH, what about Canadian "lend-lease"? that is Canadian loans and subsidies in WW2 as a beligerent? including a long term lease on the Gander Airport?

Just curious.

Becky Hargrove writes:

The point you made is incredibly important to me right now, in that we need to find ways to make such conversations more understandable by all. As a libertarian, I don't want government to fund X but by no means does that mean we can afford to walk away from X. Moreover, X is tied up in cultural shifts that we don't know how to deal with presently. Maybe we can start the conversation by saying, government can't afford to do X anymore. How can we do X on our own, in ways that we are all satisfied with the result? Let's stay in the same room till we figure that out.

yet another david writes:
One can strongly object to someone burning the American flag and yet think that they have the right to do what they wish with their own property. One can strongly object to racial discrimination and yet think that people should be free to discriminate. One can strongly object to gays getting married and yet think that gay people should be free to marry. Etc.

Timely post, David. I have the impression, in light of recent discussions regarding the Ron Paul newsletters and paleo-libertarianism, that many left-libertarians (or progressive libertarians or bleeding heart libertarians, etc.) would be guilty of the mode of thought Bastiat criticizes.

It would be a shame if the case for liberty depended on our promising not to exercise it.

Paul writes:

I think this is a great insight and a distinction that, if made, can aid it good discussion in many a debate. It seems to fit particularly well in the case of government subsidies. Clearly it cannot apply to all cases, but where do we draw the line? You seem to allude to this at the end by having the reader reflect on this insight as applied to many current debates. Continuing this line of thought results in extreme relativism with the thought, "I am personally opposed to x, but who am I to impose my beliefs on you?"
I think it is a useful insight only in helping people realize that they have similar ends in mind, with only a conflict of means. Extreme caution should be used when trying to apply this as a justification for general policy.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ken B,
Yes. I would not have helped the Canadian government if I had been president. Also, if I had been William L. M. King, I would not have got in the war.
I remember Robin’s point and I think it’s a good one. I think, though, that it’s a case of “faking it until you make it.” Once you express an opinion enough, even if it didn’t start out as your real opinion, it becomes your opinion.
@Becky Hargrove,
Good point.
@yet another david,
Thanks. It’s been on my mind for some time. You might be right about some of the critics of Ron Paul. Your last sentence is beautiful.

Matt writes:

David, to clarify the context of the conversation was Republican opposition to welfare based on higher tax rates. He was not talking about private generosity at all. I had a study in my head at the time about Republicans giving more to charity, which added to my stunned bewilderment. But it was the fact that he used the word charity to mean "higher taxes to increase welfare" that I found so infuriating.

As a side note, after reading your posts about your OWS speech, I have been slightly more comfortable explaining to these kind of people why I think they are wrong.

yet another david writes:


" Continuing this line of thought results in extreme relativism with the thought, "I am personally opposed to x, but who am I to impose my beliefs on you?" "

It's not so much relativism as humility, real tolerance and a deep respect for human difference. Relativism is a refusal to judge. What David is suggesting, in invoking libertarian principles, is that, as long as others' actions are confined to the non-aggressive use of their property and no trespass of others' property is involved, one's own personal judgment of their actions is not a license to use violence (whether in the form of the state or otherwise) to force others to comply with that judgment.

David R. Henderson writes:

Oops. I missed that. Thanks for clarifying. I see why that upset you. Re OWS, that’s great. When I sat down to outline the talk, I asked myself, “What do I understand about economics that I’m pretty sure they don’t and that, if they did, could affect their views substantially.” That’s how I came up with the content I chose.
What “yet another david” wrote. Well done, yet another david.

Ken B writes:

@DRH: Actually I was asking about the aid Canada gave to Britain, but I think I can safely infer your answer!

Yet another David's comment is indeed a good one but might I suggest it is relevant to this issue? "as long as others' actions are confined to the non-aggressive use of their property and no trespass of others' property is involved,..."

We will of course never resolve this on a blog but I'm afraid I'm with Orwell on this.

I had an interesting example of the phenomenon of the main thread once. I was discussing with a group of grad students and one post doc. I had objected to some invasive nanny-state safety regulation, and made a perfectly normal reference to how this can be done voluntarily and privately, mentioning insurance and Underwriters Laboratory. Not a single one of the group had ever even heard the argument before!

Xerographica writes:

This is a really great post! Man, do I love Bastiat!

That being said...here's the hypocrisy in your argument. It boils down to humility and tolerance...which is what "yet another david" brought up.

The fundamental aspect that "yet another david" missed though was that humility should in large part be based on the fundamental recognition that we might be wrong. Anybody who fails to recognize fallibility lacks humility...and thus can be considered conceited.

So the hard part for libertarians to accept is that they also suffer from the "fatal conceit" malaise that Hayek referred to. On the individual level we just don't have enough information to know for certain what the proper scope of government should be. We can have our theories...but our theories are just theories.

Becky Hargrove kind of hints at the solution..."Maybe we can start the conversation by saying, government can't afford to do X anymore. How can we do X on our own, in ways that we are all satisfied with the result?"

This is basic economics...the study of scarcity. How can we ensure the efficient allocation of limited public resources? The answer is to allow each and every taxpayer to decide for themselves what "X" is. If taxpayers were given the freedom to directly allocate their taxes then they would be forced to consider the opportunity costs of their tax allocation decisions. They would be forced to prioritize.

At the end of the day you might strongly object to how I allocate my taxes...but because of humility and tolerance...you would strongly support my right to do so. This is of course a two way street. Pragmatarianism is the practical implication of political tolerance.

The problem is that libertarians are just as unlikely as liberals to recognize their own conceit. If it was easy for people to recognize their own conceit then people would have embraced pragmatarianism long ago. Obviously, it would be conceited of me if I wasn't able to admit the possibility that pragmatarianism might be wrong.

That's why it all boils down to convincing. Therefore, vote for Vermin Supreme for President!!

Gary Chartier writes:

yet another david: I can't be certain what other people think or would do, but none of the left-libertarians I hang with (and I think I know most of the most influential and vocal ones) would disagree at all with the claim that "X is bad" doesn't entail "force should be used to prevent, end, or remedy X" or with the claim that "X is good" doesn't entail "force should be used to supply X." Force ought only to be used to prevent, end, or remedy aggression. Charles Johnson makes the point nicely here, and Sheldon Richman does so here--in both cases explaining opposition to Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

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