It’s What You Don’t See That Misleads You

Often, it’s not what you see that misleads you. It’s what you don’t see.

In economics, it’s called “the broken window fallacy.” Broken windows create jobs for people who replace windows. Therefore, the fallacy concludes that broken windows are a good thing. They create jobs. We should break as many windows as possible.

It’s a fallacy because it ignores the hidden costs of repairing broken windows. Such repair eats up time, labor, and money that might have been used to make other things. Those things don’t get made. Instead of adding new value to the economy, we’re just repairing something so that we don’t lose value.

(In economics, other factors sometimes complicate things, but they’re not relevant here.)

French economist Fredric Bastiat (1801-1850) called it the problem of “the seen versus the unseen.”

Our preference for the seen over the unseen misleads us all the time. What we see feels real to us; what we don’t see seems unreal, even if we know about it on an abstract level.

Maybe we’d end up making the same decisions anyway. But since the unseen seems unreal, we barely consider it — if we even consider it at all.

A lot of social discord results from people seeing, and not seeing, different things:

  • Corporate CEOs see the money they can save by firing thousands of workers and offshoring production or importing H1-Bs. The CEOs don’t know any of the fired workers and never see them, so their suffering doesn’t seem to matter.
  • Apple customers see shiny gadgets and a politically-correct CEO. They never see the abused workers in Apple’s third-world production facilities, so their suffering doesn’t seem to matter.
  • Open-borders activists see poor people from crime-ridden countries who might be better off in America. They don’t see the costs and hardships imposed on American people and communities, so their suffering doesn’t seem to matter.

So it’s often helpful to ask: “What am I not seeing about this situation?”

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology, Society and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to It’s What You Don’t See That Misleads You

  1. J P says:

    This is a huge concept. One of the classic examples is an increase in the minimum wage, a topic that has become popular lately. We see the higher paychecks of those who continue to work. We do not see the people who will not be hired and the jobs that will not be created (and the young people who will not get a valuable learning experience) because of the new higher minimum rate.


    • N.S. Palmer says:

      The minimum-wage dispute stems from three more basic mistakes: (1) the idea that any problem can be solved by “passing a law;” (2) ignorance of basic economics; and (3) as you observed, giving no thought to the side-effects of particular laws. It’s a fairly common pattern.


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