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


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.

  • Jose Carbonell

    You mention the “seen’s” and the “unseen’s” but, what about the “you don’t want to see”? Just this morning I learned that my cash-strapped Montgomery County in Maryland is fighting to include Viagra as a benefit for county employees.

    • Mary

      Once they think we’re not looking, the managers of our tax money do these things. Viagra is a want, not a need… and very expensive. Next, it will be breast implants, facelifts, and Rogaine… for “mental” health.

  • digdigby

    Re. affirmative action you say:
    “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 bright young ghetto kids who have made themselves college material and might thrive perhaps in a good state university law school are grabbed up relentlessly by affirmative action Ivy League schools where they are in WAY over their heads and fail fail fail in huge numbers. Dropout. Hate themselves the rest of their lives for their failed opportunity and are basically chewed up crushed, saddled with immense debt and spat out by racial number crunchers who do as much evil as ‘compassionate’ human beings are capable of.

  • Alex

    What the author suggests, looking beyond the immediate surface of an issue, and analyzing unseen consequences and hidden costs, requires too much mental labor.

    Let’s just keep it easy by making decisions based on our emotional reactions.

  • Susan

    Nail, meet hammer.

  • Deacon Ed

    We see the illegal immigrants who come to our country in search of work to support their families in Latin America. What we don’t see is the fate of the families left behind when dad arrives in the USA, finds employment and also finds someone new to love because he is lonely. So dad/husband marries the new wife (perhaps not) who then becomes pregnant with the man’s child. Dad/husband forgets about family #1 who are now in even more desperate straits back home because the primary breadwinner is gone. So how many lives are wrecked? Ask the bishops because they are on top of this whole thing.

    There are many more stories to tell when it comes to illegal immigration I am afraid.

    • Cord Hamrick

      Deacon Ed:

      I am certain that the kind of story you describe happens often.

      Still…I wonder about the wisdom of using it as an argument.

      I suppose that the argument would be valid if:

      (a.) We’re certain that what you describe happens a majority (or large minority) of the time; and,

      (b.) We’re certain that the scenario you describe is worse than the alternative (i.e., the scenario stays in his home country, with an intact family, who is however worse-off (possibly starving?) for lack of the income he could have produced in the U.S.).

      All that seems likely enough, but far from certain. Does anyone have any reliable statistical information about this? (Considering the clandestine nature of the problem, could anyone?)

      I’m not trying to stomp on your argument, Deacon Ed! Just trying to be cautious about getting it right.

    • Dan

      We might consider another unseen consequence of unregulated immigration: the severe downward pressure on wages that put the unskilled and lesser-skilled resident population at even greater economic risk. This phenomenon is blithely dismissed as “jobs Americans won’t do”, but more accurately described as “jobs Americans can’t afford to do”. The welfare state welcomes the new dependents, and their communities suffer all the attendant social pathologies that typically accompany severe economic dislocation.

  • TeaPot562

    Has anyone empathizing with economic immigrants considered trying to reform the political systems in the (mostly Latin American) countries from which they come? Attempting to start a business – any business, construction, retail, etc. – in one of those countries typically requires long waits, much paperwork, even bribes of minor officials to get the paper processed.
    If a country allows an entrepeneur to start a business with a minimum of extraneous requirements, that country is actively enabling people who provide jobs to those they hire.
    The experience of those trying to rebuild earthquake-damaged Haiti is one example.
    Costs in those countries of doing business, ONCE THE BUSINESS BECOMES A “GOING CONCERN” tend to be below those in the USA. The political/commercial attitude of nations south of the USA tends to keep their people unemployed. In effect, their governmental attitude toward business is an “opportunity cost”.

  • Paul

    You don’t even have to dig into the poor when discussing the seen vs. the unseen. What in the world are we doing subsidzing big businsess?

    “Morally obscene” are the words that comes to mind.

  • If I may refer you to
    Please view Renaissance 2.0. Watch the whole thing, beginning with lesson 1. This will give you deeper insight into what is unseen.

    Blessings on you

  • Tony Esolen

    Children never conceived, families never formed … I wish someone would come up with the real “divorce” rate in the US. It would include the breakups of couples who have lived together at least one year, or who have conceived a child. I’ll bet that it would approach 70 percent.

    We can extend the argument to include all those lost to the Church because of stupid or heretical innovations. It’s easy to count the people in the pews. A lot harder to count, or even to see, the ones who aren’t.

  • BenK

    Anyone who sees the mere movement of money as the metric of economy is a fool; and often an economist. The true metric of economy is the production of things that are needed, their preservation, and the enjoyment of them. Everything else is suffering, waste and want.

  • KaleJ

    All I can say, is wow. Well said. You summarize so many thoughts and loose ends.

    Thank you Mr. Zmirak

  • What about the many Christians who are well educated and who do consider these “unseens” but nonetheless choose to support socially liberal and communitarian policies? My politics agree completely with the author of this article (I like to quote Ron Paul’s line from his book about how deals get made in Washington when benefits are concentrated but costs are dispersed), but I can hardly say that my more egalitarian social-justice-minded Christians friends “don’t get it” because they fail to understand opportunity costs. They just see things differently.

  • Flamen

    Yes, follow Ron Paul and the followers of Ayn Rand.
    The political figures who cite Rand as an influence are most often conservative or libertarian members of the United States Republican Party. Martin Anderson, chief domestic policy adviser for President Ronald Reagan, identifies himself as a disciple of Rand, and Reagan described himself as an “admirer” of Rand in private correspondence in the 1960s. “In 1987, The New York Times called Rand the ‘novelist laureate’ of the Reagan administration. Reagan’s nominee for commerce secretary, C. William Verity Jr., kept a passage from Atlas Shrugged on his desk, including the line “How well you do your work . . . [is] the only measure of human value.”
    Conservative and libertarian talk show hosts such as Glenn Beck, John Stossel, Neal Boortz and Rush Limbaugh have recommended Atlas Shrugged to their audiences. U.S. Congressmen Bob Barr, Ron Paul, and Paul Ryan have acknowledged her influence on their lives, as has Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Clarence Thomas.
    The financial crisis of 2007–2010 spurred renewed interest in her works, especially Atlas Shrugged, which some saw as foreshadowing the crisis, and opinion articles compared real-world events with the plot of the novel. Republican South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford wrote a 2009 review for Newsweek where he spoke of how he was “blown away” after first reading The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, while tying her significance to understanding the 2008 financial crisis. Signs mentioning Rand and her fictional hero John Galt appeared at Tea Party protests, while the Cato Institute’s Will Wilkinson quipped that “going Galt” had become the “libertarian-conservative’s version of progressives threatening to move to Canada.”
    During this period there was also increased criticism of her ideas, especially from the political left, with critics blaming the economic crisis on her support of selfishness and free markets, particularly through her influence on Alan Greenspan. For example, the left-leaning Mother Jones remarked that “Rand’s particular genius has always been her ability to turn upside down traditional hierarchies and recast the wealthy, the talented, and the powerful as the oppressed”, while The Nation alleged similarities between the “moral syntax
    As an atheist who rejected faith as antithetical to reason, Rand embraced philosophical realism and opposed all forms of what she regarded as mysticism and supernaturalism including every organized religion. Rand wrote in her journals that Christianity was the best kindergarten of communism possible.” Rand argued for rational egoism (rational self-interest) as the only proper guiding moral principle. “The individual should exist for his own sake”, she wrote in 1962, “neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.” Rand held that laissez-faire, free market capitalism is the only moral social system. Philosopher Chandran Kukathas said her “unremitting hostility towards the state and taxation sits inconsistently with a rejection of anarchism and her attempt to resolve the difference are ill-thought and unsystematic.” The first edition of We the Living contained language which has been interpreted as advocating ruthless elitism: “What are your masses but mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it?”

  • Cord Hamrick


    Ayn Rand was an interesting person, but nobody’s hero unless they altogether lack wisdom and discernment.

    She popularized certain perfectly true observations about economies and productivity and incentives and the origins of wealth and the morality of force and the kinds of systems which undermine wealth creation.

    Now none of these things were unsaid before Rand. Some of them had been stated more fully and accurately long before her. But many of them weren’t said as boldly, as unapologetically, as defiantly and as excitingly, as they were by Rand; and she, in her era, was nearly the only voice saying them that way. And in that era, and in ours, they very much needed saying.

    She also was an unapologetic adulteress, apparently into kinky sex, an atheist, a pretty amateurish philosopher, and so utterly ignorant of Christianity that her attempts to criticize it (as part of criticisms of religion in general) impress no-one except those who know nothing about it. Indeed the one or two halfway decent arguments against it (the lack of Christian doctrinal and ecclesial unity, and “the problem of evil” or “theodicy”) were apparently unknown or incomprehensible to her.

    She was also a horrifyingly bad fiction writer in the areas of dialogue and pacing, utterly lacked a good novelist’s understanding of the psychology of human affections, and the last half of the plot of her masterpiece (Atlas Shrugged) was beset with the kind of oversights and implausible premises that leave you shouting at the page, if you don’t burst into incredulous laughter.

    In many ways, she just plain sucked as a human being and as a creative artist.

    And yet…,

    On those few critical observations which she got right, she’s pungent and memorable.

    That’s worth something, and it’s why folk who utterly reject some components of her philosophy (e.g. anyone who isn’t an atheist) nevertheless are willing to “test everything, and hold fast to whatever is good.” (1 Thess 5:21)

  • Gail F

    Our culture is all about the “seen.” Thank you for putting it so well.

  • Timothy Horton

    “the freedom to harness the fruits of your labors and spend them as you think wise”

    Please correct this statement to the following: “the freedom to give the fruits of your labors to the bosses and let them spend them as they think wise and give you any remaining scraps”

    Good day.

  • Flamen

    Rand’s and the Republican economic philosophy is a YOYO one – You’re On Your Own – is contrary to the Gospel message and Catholic social teaching.

  • Cord Hamrick


    I’ve no idea how you could put “Republican economic philosophy” in that sentence; it doesn’t belong. (And there isn’t only one, or at least, not a consistent one.)

    But as for Rand’s philosophy (distinct from policy opinions)? Yes, you’re quite right.

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