frederic-bastiat-john-lImagine you receive an email from the Secretary of Education saying that you’ve been randomly selected for a test pilot program.

In an attempt to democratize the educational system, 20 citizens have been selected to develop a curriculum that will be added as a graduation requirement for every high school student in America. The only limitation is that the curriculum must pertain to a subject that is already covered in high school, must not be tied to religion or theology, and must take no longer than a total of 3 hours (half a school day) to implement.

For the typical student in America, the school year typically lasts for 180 days at 6-hour for 13 years (K-12). That’s roughly 14,040 hours of time they’ll spend in school. You now have three of those hours to change the course of their education. What would you do?
Here’s my proposed program:

Have every student read and discuss Frederic Bastiat’s “That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen.”

College-bound students would be required to read the entire essay while those who struggle would read only excerpts, perhaps only the first 400 words. The students would then briefly explain the point of the essay in their own words, discuss the essay amongst themselves, and then provide three to four examples of how they think it might be applied in their own lives and in the realm of public policy.

And that’s it. That’s the entire program.

Not everyone would benefit from such reading and discussion, of course. Yet if even a fraction of students grasped the concept it would quite literally change the future of American politics and policy.

“No single essay or article in economics is more vital than Frederic Bastiat’s ‘What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen,’” says Don Boudreaux. “The fact that its simple but widely missed point is made crystal-clear by a writer intent on communicating in an easy and accessible style should not cause this essay to be viewed as an exercise in mere pop-econ.”

Unfortunately, I’m not likely to get an email from the Education Secretary offering to put my program in place. But I can do the next best thing: Encourage you to read the essay and encourage you to encourage others to read it. As Boudreaux adds,

So if you’ve not yet read Bastiat’s brilliant essay, do so. Do so ASAP. Then re-read it. Ponder it. Keep pondering it. Never forget it or its lesson. Let it prompt you always to ask about the visible that all-important question that probes the ever-present invisible: “As compared to what?” By doing so you will thereby become a better economist than thousands of econ-PhD-sporting people today.

After you read Bastiat’s essay be sure to read Boudreaux’s brief explanation of the “different ‘levels’ of the not-seen.”

The Law

The Law

The Law was originally published in French in 1850 by Frederic Bastiat and  is the work for which Bastiat is most famous. This translation to American English is from 1874.

  • Roger McKinney

    I love Bastiat! But I think another author has given me a different perspective on the issue. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia wrote “The ­Righteous Mind” to explain why conservatives and liberals (socialists) can’t understand each other. It’s less about reason and evidence than about moral intuition. Conservatives place equal emphasis on 6 dimensions of morality where socialists are stunted. They perceive just three dimensions, all of which are aspects of material equality. In other words, absolute equality of wealth is all that the left cares about and will consider. Nothing else is important.

    Haidt’s research agrees with my favorite write, Helmut Schoeck and his “Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior.” Envy drives the obsession with absolute wealth equality.

    Haidt experimented with having socialists and conservatives try to think like each other. Conservatives had no problem thinking like socialists but socialists found it impossible to think like conservatives.

    Haidt’s conclusion – you can’t reason with a socialist. BTW, Haidt IDs himself as a liberal (socialist).