Breaking Stained Glass Windows

One of the classic texts written in defense of political and economic freedom is Frederic Bastiat’s The Law. I remember having the book pressed on me as a high school senior by a smart, nerdy-looking libertarian who worked at the Laissez-Faire Bookstore in New York, and I wish that I’d read it then. It would have saved me years of authoritarian fantasies about erecting a Catholic regime in America modeled on Salazar’s Portugal. I thank God that the Internet didn’t exist in the 1980s, or else there’d be an endless stream of old, insane blog posts that I’d still be apologizing for. Instead, my adolescent ravings all burbled away in glasses of gin and late night bull sessions with properly outraged secular roommates, to whom I hope this column constitutes a public apology. Let’s hope I didn’t scandalize them irreversibly — a fact I’ll only learn on judgment day.

Probably the best known essay by Bastiat is “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen,” where he points out what economists call the “broken window” fallacy. A dry and gracious stylist, Bastiat recounts this concept in what sounds like one of Aesop’s fables, but it boils down to this: Certain economists seem to think it’s a good idea to run around breaking windows in order to create jobs for glassmakers. Such thinkers fixate on what is seen — the newly employed glassmaker — and completely ignore what is not seen: the other, more prudent uses of the money that was wasted fixing the window. Once you have smashed the window, you can see with your own two eyes the friendly glassmaker who’s happy to earn some money fixing the thing; what you’ll never see is the person who might have been hired to plant the garden if the window hadn’t been broken, or the roses that never grew there.

Bastiat’s logic here is unassailable and applies throughout the economy. Critics of value-neutral economics have noted that every divorce increases the Gross Domestic Product, by creating jobs for attorneys and daycare center workers. Likewise, cases of lung cancer (of which my mother died) create new jobs for doctors, nurses, and hospice workers. (Indeed, I’ve always wondered why tobacco companies didn’t “vertically integrate” by buying up cancer hospitals, funeral homes, and graveyards.) The term in Intro Econ classes for the wasted window-fixing money is “opportunity cost,” since the broken window costs the homeowner other opportunities for spending the money more usefully. But what I’d like to focus on instead is the key distinction between what is seen and what is not seen and move the discussion from questions of productivity to justice.

Far too many Catholics, in reacting to political and economic issues, seem to make a virtue of fetishizing what is seen and ignoring what is not seen. This occurs most commonly in conflicts between employees and employers (for instance, Wisconsin teachers and Wisconsin taxpayers), or members of designated “victim” groups and non-members who dispute their claims. We can see the bedraggled, outraged schoolteacher picketing the statehouse, and hear his concrete, specific claims of why he needs more money. To quote former President Bill Clinton, we can feel his pain. We do not typically see the millions of taxpayers who share the cost of employing these teachers and literally can’t imagine what else they might do with the money the government didn’t confiscate.

The case gets even more poignant when what is seen is a person who’s palpably poor, demonstrating outside the statehouse asking for benefits. It’s all too easy (and common nowadays) to airily dismiss the people who are not seen — the overtaxed working-class people who can’t afford parochial school, or SAT prep classes, or other worthy uses of their own money, for which they have worked. The same thing applies to policy issues such as affirmative action: We see the hopeful face of the black or Latino kid who got an extra boost into a state university, but we don’t see the white kid who was turned away to give him a place. The language typically used by certain Catholics to champion what is seen includes stock phrases like “a concrete, living, needy image of Christ,” while they dismiss what is unseen as “mere abstractions.” The needy person staking a claim tantalizes such people like a lamb chop would my beagle, while talk of the unseen victims of these claims is as dry as a bowl of nutritious kibble.


In such cases we are no longer considering simple productivity, pointing out that smashing windows to make new jobs is wasteful. Especially when we’re discussing the government using coercion to confiscate someone’s wealth and transfer it to somebody else, we are talking instead of justice. Is it just to force this taxpayer over here to fund the benefits of that tax-taker over there? Is it fair (or wise, or free) to construct a value-neutral bureaucracy, managed by a distant federal government over which each one of us has only the tiniest influence, and allow it to confiscate 30-40 percent of everyone’s paycheck, to use as its hired managers see fit? I am not an anarchist, and I do not dispute that in certain matters only the government — and the federal government at that — can remedy grave injustices or prevent the commission of new ones. But is that really true of almost half of life?

When the Church teaches that we must offer a “preferential option” for the poor, does she really mean that, in every case where a person wants something funded by someone else who has more money, the former should get it? That is what some Catholic writers seem to think. Is the right of private property, the freedom to harness the fruits of your labors and spend them as you think wise — including on charitable giving that you freely choose, such as the Church — so faint and tenuous that any claim at all by someone poorer must always prevail? If this were the case, the Church would have embraced the system of socialism — which pope after pope (beginning with Pope Leo XIII) has in fact condemned. Just for the record, this is what that pope who loved the poor had to say of socialists:

They assail the right of property sanctioned by natural law; and by a scheme of horrible wickedness, while they seem desirous of caring for the needs and satisfying the desires of all men, they strive to seize and hold in common whatever has been acquired either by title of lawful inheritance, or by labor of brain and hands, or by thrift in one’s mode of life. (Quod Apostolici Muneris, 2)

In the name of a pseudo-Christian paternalism, we would have in fact embraced the suffocating, managerial state that Pope John Paul II warned against in Centesimus Annus. Worse yet, since the modern state is secular, by giving it half our wealth (and, hence, half our work), we would be surrendering vast arenas of life to value-neutral, utilitarian managers. Of course, we are already doing this: In overtaxed New York City, the Catholic schools are closing because parents cannot afford their tuition, while thousands of dangerous, less effective public schools are lavished with funds. In how many other areas of life are our individual choices taken away from us and handed over to strangers with alien values, who use the coercive power of government to redirect our money as they see fit?

But this habit of choosing the seen over the unseen has even darker implications; it is in fact, at the heart of the pro-choice mindset. Those who are addicted to choosing the seen over the unseen look at the issue of abortion with the same unthinking concreteness of the window-smashing economist. They hear the distress of women with unintended pregnancies, they see their distressed condition, they can picture themselves in their place and empathize with their suffering. What they don’t see, can’t hear, and will not imagine are the merely “abstract” rights of the unborn child who waits in the darkness. And so, in the name of compassion, they side with what they think are the best interests of the person whom they can see. They weave thereby a seamless garment of tyranny and injustice, all the while congratulating themselves. As Christ said of the Pharisees: They have their reward.


John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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