Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Bastiat's Garden

Much like Adam Smith (I assume, second-hand, as I have not personally read his work), Mr. Bastiat seemed particularly adept at packaging a point, and consequently (as we discussed last meeting) being a big deal. Unlike Adam Smith, however, who offered up digestible new information, it seems to me as though Bastiat's main worldly economic contribution was more as an illustrator of concepts to the masses and economists alike, which took form in his accessible perspectives and presentations (Take form of: SATIRE!)

Now, I would consider myself a "credible "layman," which grants me the luxury of being totally in the dark about the far-reaching effects of his work in the economic sphere, but still able to comment on the personal effects of his work upon myself, the layman, that he wrote so compellingly to. For the laymen perspective, I'm your gal, and would agree that the aforementioned was the nature of Bastiat's fame. When I read his work, I'm inclined to have my initial "A-Ha!" moments, but almost immediately afterwards (assuming that I think as logically as I think I do), conclude that I could have arrived at that same conclusion had I invested the time and energy on doing so (but certainly with far less eloquence and thought cohesion). And, like the layman I am, I am "lay"man"zy", and will not think that hard when left to my own devices. AND, by the transitive property, I would posit that most other laymen would defer to the conventional standards and strings of logic that have and continue to pervade their everyday life to explain phenomena, rather than sit down with every new economic idea and really think it through. This of course leads to us laymen using bad logic and ideas (and in our context, economic logic and ideas) and perpetuating in societies! When we're not educated, we get stuck with thinking errors and the bad habits that accompany them, and end up utilizing them to organize our society (which, as Bastiat points out, sometimes yields counter-intuitive results). This leads me to my very next point, which I believe it is worth it's own indented paragraph (or my old English teachers do, at least)!

It sounds like Bastiat did much to remove false conventions of thought surrounding economic discourse that stinted the progress of economic thinking/philosophy/theory/whatever, or at the very least, stint economic progress (given the plea we saw in the Candlestick Maker's Petition). In fact, let's visit his own words:
"Now, it is precisely on the basis of its being semi gratuitous (pardon the word) that you maintain it should be barred. You ask: 'How can French labour withstand the competition of foreign labour when the former has to do all the work, whereas the latter has to do only half, the sun taking care of the rest?' But if the fact that a product if half free of charge leads you to exclude it from competition, how can its being totally free of charge induce you to admit it into competition? Either you are not consistent, or you should, after excluding what is half free of charge as harmful to our domestic industry, exclude what is totally gratuitous with all the more reason and with twice the zeal."  
Here, he's telling the government that they're trying to obtain an end that is not justified by their means, and are hindering progress.

And again in his "Broken Window Fallacy" -
"If you have been present at this spectacle, certainly you must also have observed that the onlookers, even if there are as many as thirty of them, seem with one accord to offer the unfortunate owner the selfsame consolation: 'It's an ill wind that blows nobody some good. Such accidents keep industry going. Everybody has to make a living. What would become of the glaziers if no one ever broke a window?' 
Now, this formula of condolence contains a whole theory that it is a good idea for us to expose, flagrant delicto, in this very simple case, since it is exactly the same as that which, unfortunately, underlies most of our economic institutions."
In this example, he's basically (politely) calling out people's reflex to assign an answer based on incomplete, flawed logic. And then he goes on to disprove those gawks.

While less of his fame can be attributed to offering up new things, I feel like he maybe made an equally powerful contribution to the field of economics by clearing the economic "weeds" that were poisoning the growth of arguably "righter" schools of thought and practice in society, thus allowing new ideas to sprout and flower in Bastiat's now "weeded field." With all those "weedy" pervasive fallacies *essentially* put to rest, time and energy that had otherwise been reserved for trial-and-erroring by governments and invested parties to implement systems and philosophies that were flawed, efforts could then be diverted towards developing and implementing the "right" systems with little resistance from flawed dissenters (which became the minority), as well as cultivating, or harvesting, if you will, new economic paths and insights. In short, Bastiat's a BOMB economic GARDNER! *(Also, try out this analogy with pruning a let's say... dinosaur shaped-hedge: the dinosaur hedge being society, its branches being schools of economic thought, and Bastiat being a rudimentary pruner. Some economic thought-branches may seem like they'll grow right, but they stick out, and ruin the dinosaur. Along comes Bastiat to "trim the hedges," and whatayaknow? Dinosaur restored, and we can keep growing the hedge to maybe make the dinosaur bigger. Bastiat as Edward Scissorhands? That would probably make a cooler title).

Also, just as a side opinion of Bastiat role, he seems to provide a nice example of an credible outside source's second opinion; that is, he is relatively expertly familiarized with the subject matter, but is himself not enmeshed in the field as an straight economist. As we (I) have seen in many disciplines across the board, enmeshment can often lead to circular reasoning, "reality-check" blinders, and plain selective omission of bits of information in the interest of arriving at something "clean." Bastiat, however, had that prized gift of being able to see a bigger picture, and, if I may be so bold as to conjecture, that it is merely by virtue of not being an economist. He's not looking at a fraction, and gathering observations from it solely, but rather absorbing everything at once, and simultaneously gaining the perspectives of many of the other contending fractions. It's probably why he caught on to that whole "seeing the unseen consequences of an action" - he wasn't just looking at what was going on inside one fraction, but watching the consequence bounce around from fraction to fraction, area to area, from his big picture stadium box. This is not to say that it necessarily makes him a great economist, but rather, a man of great deft in getting everyone on the same page so that they can start making some sensible progress.

The End

*Also, I figured out how to not make my text contrast with it's background, so ya welcome