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The Seen is Often Unseen

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A major renovation of one of GMU’s science buildings is nearly complete.  This building is next-door, on the Fairfax campus, to Enterprise Hall – home of GMU’s Department of Economics.  Yesterday, when showing Methinks and her husband around campus, I snapped a photo of one of the brand-new stone benches that have been installed to line a walkway.  Each bench features an inscription, such as…


Note that Madame Curie’s insight – “One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done” – applies not only to the narrowly scientific endeavors that she undoubtedly had in mind, but also to the economy.

The market economy works with such marvelous success at enriching every one of its denizens – enriching every denizen, to be precise, compared to the pathetically poor material standard of living each denizen would endure in the absence of market institutions – that we denizens of a market economy don’t ‘see’ the market’s abundant benefits.  A fact both ironic and potentially dangerous is the reality that the modern market’s vast and largely silent (because its operation is usually so smooth) productiveness blinds people to the splendid reality of the market – which is to say, blinds people to the awful reality of what life would be like in the absence of markets (or what life would be like if markets were significantly more hamstrung than they are today).

We don’t notice what has been done.  We don’t notice, at least not readily enough, often enough, and with enough historical knowledge.

The market distorts our perspective on what the market itself achieves.  If there’s any feature of the market that warrants being described as “failure,” this distortion is it.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the demand for government intervention into markets – like the wealth that protects us from being seriously impoverished by such intervention – is a function not so much of the kinds of “market failures” (such as smokestack emissions) that economists feature in their textbooks as of, instead, the continuing stream of market successes that give people the mistaken impression that whenever the economy falls short of imagined ideal states a real problem is at hand, a problem that has a “cause” that can easily enough be cured by smart people with lots of power.

Perspective is vital [2].