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To Be Unseen Is Not to Be Abstract

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In my latest column for AIER I do my best to explain the mistake of mistaking the unseen for the abstract. Unseen victims of government intervention are actual flesh-and-blood human beings. The good economist’s greatest role in society is to be a spokesperson for these unseen victims [2]. A slice:

Suppose that you observe Jones sitting alone in a small room in a university research facility. Jones, who is participating in a scientific experiment, holds in his hands a device featuring a big button. The researcher who persuaded Jones to volunteer for this experiment explains to you that whenever Jones presses the button, he gets an injection of dopamine which increases Jones’s felt happiness.

You observe Jones, smiling joyfully, pressing the button with abandon.

The researcher then explains that the dopamine that Jones injects into his body with each press of the button is extracted from Smith, who is strapped to a chair in a room immediately beneath where Jones sits. Unlike Jones, Smith did not volunteer to participate in this experiment; she was waylaid off the street and forced into the room, where researchers inserted into her body a tube used to transfer dopamine from her to Jones with each press of the button by Jones.

From your vantage point, you see and hear only Jones. You know of Smith only because the researcher informed you of Smith’s involuntary role in this experiment. “After all,” the researcher admits, “Jones’s extra doses of dopamine have to come from somewhere.”

Being a decent human being, you’re horrified at what you’ve learned. You turn in protest to the researcher, only to discover that he’s gone. Fortunately, a group of strangers has just walked up to where you stand; they’ve come to observe Jones experience his button-brought happiness.

“Isn’t it wonderful that this man is made happier merely by pressing a button!” you hear one stranger comment admiringly to another.

“No!” you interject loudly. The strangers, taking notice of you for the first time, eye you quizzically.

Calming your voice, you explain to the strangers that Jones’s observed happiness comes at the expense of Smith, who is imprisoned in a room one floor below. “We should take that button from Jones and free Smith,” you plead.

The strangers now eye you with suspicion. “I don’t see any Smith,” one stranger announces condescendingly. “Nor do I hear any Smith.” This stranger then, glaring at you with contempt, accuses you of cruelly wishing to make Jones worse off. “You, sir,” the stranger sneers as he gazes into your eyes, “should be ashamed of yourself for resorting to mere abstractions to justify your pitiless wish to make a fellow human being worse off.”

You try in vain to explain that Smith is no abstraction; she’s very real. The fact that Smith is unseen and unheard doesn’t in the least diminish her reality — or her moral worth.

Calling you “callous,” “uncaring,” “inhumane,” and “cold-blooded,” the strangers accuse you of elevating “abstract notions” above “real-world fellow human beings.”

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