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Quotation of the Day…

… is from page 102 of the 2007 Definitive Edition (Bruce Caldwell, ed.) of F.A. Hayek’s classic 1944 book, The Road to Serfdom:

The point which is so important is the basic fact that it is impossible for any man to survey more than a limited field, to be aware of the urgency of more than a limited number of needs. Whether his interests center round his own physical needs, or whether he takes a warm interest in the welfare of every human being he knows, the ends about which he can be concerned will always be only an infinitesimal fraction of the needs of all men.

DBx: When stated, this point is obvious and indisputable. Yet it’s among many such points that are forgotten in much political commentary and campaigning – and philosophizing.

The typical politician campaigns and governs, and the typical talking-head pundit pontificates, as if the groups of people who attract his or her attention are the only groups who exist. This politician or pundit claims to champion (what he or she imagines are) the interests of visible helpless victims (“Vote for me and I’ll fight for workers!”) and claims to be a stalwart opponent of visible cunning villains (“When I’m in office, CEOs will think twice before offshoring jobs!”)

But even if this politician or pundit is sincere to the marrow, it’s impossible not only for him or her to know the full range of the nuanced interests of those whose interests he or she claims to champion, he or she ignores – is blind to – the very existence of vast numbers of other persons, alive and yet-to-be-born.

The politician who supports tariffs as a means of protecting workers protects, with tariffs, only a subset of workers. This politician is blind to the workers who suffer because of tariffs. (This fact is true even if we confine the discussion exclusively to people in the home country.) This politician doesn’t see the workers today who as a consequence of the tariff lose, or who don’t get, the best possible jobs. This politician is blind to the workers tomorrow who are employed at wages lower than they would have been paid had the tariff not artificially buoyed inefficient industries and, as a result, stymied the creation and growth of more efficient ones. This politician is blind to the losses that tariffs inflict on consumers, both today and tomorrow.

What is true for tariffs is true for countless other policies. That which is seen receives attention; that which is not seen is ignored.

I say again that the most important normative role of economists is to champion the interests of the vast legions government-policies’ unseen victims. Because the objects of economists’ concern are unseen and, hence, largely ignored by politicians and pundits, economists who perform well this important role will routinely be accussed of being heartless for their opposition to policies that yield obvious benefits to visible groups. But, well, such is the fate of good economists.


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