Progressive myopia: Their theories discount what they cannot see

Blurred eye chart

The following is the entire text of Frédéric Bastiat’s magnificent Parable of the Broken Window, which is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it in 1850. As you read it, please note carefully the highlighted language:

Have you ever witnessed the anger of the good shopkeeper, James Goodfellow, when his careless son has happened to break a pane of glass? If you have been present at such a scene, you will most assuredly bear witness to the fact that every one of the spectators, were there even thirty of them, by common consent apparently, offered the unfortunate owner this invariable consolation—”It is an ill wind that blows nobody good. Everybody must live, and what would become of the glaziers if panes of glass were never broken?”

Now, this form of condolence contains an entire theory, which it will be well to show up in this simple case, seeing that it is precisely the same as that which, unhappily, regulates the greater part of our economical institutions.

Suppose it cost six francs to repair the damage, and you say that the accident brings six francs to the glazier’s trade—that it encourages that trade to the amount of six francs—I grant it; I have not a word to say against it; you reason justly. The glazier comes, performs his task, receives his six francs, rubs his hands, and, in his heart, blesses the careless child. All this is that which is seen.

But if, on the other hand, you come to the conclusion, as is too often the case, that it is a good thing to break windows, that it causes money to circulate, and that the encouragement of industry in general will be the result of it, you will oblige me to call out, “Stop there! Your theory is confined to that which is seen; it takes no account of that which is not seen.

It is not seen that as our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library. In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way, which this accident has prevented.

On December 26, I wrote a post entitled “Gun control supporters count those who have died; Second Amendment supporters count those who will live.”  Or, as Bastiat says, gun control advocates’ “theory is confined to that which is seen; it takes no account of that which is not seen.”  Gun control supporters are able to count those who have died, but they cannot even begin to imagine those whose lives were saved or never threatened.  Point them to a story about an off-duty deputy who was able to stop a mall shooter, and they’ll simply say “the shooter’s aim was bad, so he wasn’t going to kill anyone anyway.”  To them, a story without dead bodies is no story at all.  You and I, however, count the dozens who survived.

Likewise, when I look at crime statistics showing that legally-armed communities have a lower murder rate than gun-controlled communities, I think of all those law-abiding citizens in the first community who sleep safely in their beds at night.  Those “not-dead” people are real numbers to me.

The gun control advocates cannot see these non-victims.  They have no ability to acknowledge their numbers, let alone tabulate them.  For that reason, they are unable to compare “Second Amendment Community A” against “Gun Control Community B.”  Since they cannot comprehend that which they cannot see they deny that the first community has an absence of dead that puts the second community to shame.  All that Progressives see are the bodies stacked in Community B.  They then draw their myopic conclusion:  a little gun control didn’t work, so more will be better.

This inability to see beyond their noses doesn’t stop with the Progressive approach to economics or gun control.  The same ideological myopia, or failure of imagination, powers abortion.  Progressives see the young woman whose education ends abruptly with a pregnancy; the downtrodden wife who doesn’t want a seventh child with her abusive husband; or the high-powered executive who just can’t be bothered to slow down to have a baby.  What they refuse to see is the baby (a position that at least had some validity in a pre-modern era when we couldn’t peek into the womb, but that is inexcusable now).  Seeing the baby doesn’t automatically mean we should ban all abortions, but it does mean acknowledging that there is another life involved — that even as one life is “saved,” another life is lost.

Illegal immigration?  The Progressive’s mental and ideological imagination begins and ends with the pathetic illegal alien, cowering as the cops drag him/her away from weeping children.  Perhaps they see as far as the brave dash across the border.  What they don’t see are the people who have been patiently waiting in line to come to America, but whose chances diminish as others skip the line entirely.  (Me?  I love immigrants, being the child of two.  But I like ’em legal, as mine were.)

Progressives also cannot see that governments such as Mexico’s depend upon illegal immigrants to (a) send dollars back to Mexico, although Obamanomics make those dollars worth less (or worthless, depending); and (b) provide a safety valve so that Mexico doesn’t have to deal with its oppressive, corrupt government and the deleterious effect that government has on its people’s inability to raise themselves into wealth.

You can play the same myopia game with all the other Progressive positions too, whether welfare or national security.  Invariably, if you drill down into the Progressive world view, and you put aside the usual paranoid delusions that thrive in the absence of clear-eyed evidence, you will see that each Progressive political “theory is confined to that which is seen; it takes no account of that which is not seen.

Progressivism is like mental and moral myopia.  It’s acolytes can see only the most simple images, provided they are pushed right under their noses.  They lack the imagination, curiosity and, yes, the intelligence to look for or even envision a world beyond the crude, stereotypical cartoons that inhabit their immediate line of sight.

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  • Michael Adams

    Regarding Mexico, let’s be clear about it.  Mexicans  are fleeing a socialist economy, which back-tracked, a little,  for twelve years, and is now in the grip of the PRI once again. When I mention this indisputable fact to “Liberals,” they go cross-eyed with rage.  I do it often.

  • Danny Lemieux

    They cannot see or they will not see?

    Human beings are amazing in their ability to filter out information that does not conform to their world view. I have seen this phenomenon occur over and over with otherwise very intelligent Liberal/Progressives. They refuse to accept your facts or see reality if such threatens to undermine the underpinnings of their world view. This is one reason why they have to demonize conservatives like Clarence Thomas and Sarah Palin – because if they don’t, their entire understanding of the world and how it works collapses. 

    One of the questions that I’ve always had was about those “good” Germans in WWII who claimed that they never knew about the concentration camps that existed over the next hill. Over time, I’ve come to conclude that, yes, of course they knew. But they also wiped it from their consciousness because to accept it as a fact was too horrible and threatened to destroy whatever little faith they had in their system.

    This is one reason why I find Progressives so scary – they can convince themselves of anything, as long as it supports their ideological constructs. From such delusions, great evil can be done.

  • zombie

    You are very right about progressives refusing to acknowledge the unseen consequences of their theories and actions. This denial pervades everything about their worldview. A good example that comes to mind is “welfare” — they think that to feed a hungry man, to house the homeless, to care for the sick — it can only be good. What they cannot (and by “cannot” I mean “refuse to”) see is that there are distant and hard-to-quantify after-effects of their “good deeds” which may only end up making everything worse. In this example, if “we” feed all the hungry and house all the homeless and care for all the sick, all at our own expense, then two things inevitably happen: those being cared for become dependent upon and essentially addicted to the “free” help, and end up not contributing to society themselves; and at the other end of the equation, we discover that the “free” goodies must be paid for somehow, and it ends up being paid for by increased taxes on the productive members and entities in society, taxes which cause them to be less productive, leading to more people being laid off, leading to more unemployment, leading to more hungry, homeless and sick people. Thus, in the end, the progressives’ “good deeds” may end up not only harming both the giver and the recipient.
    Here’s a more direct anecdote to illustrate the progressives’ intentional self-blindness — stop me if I’ve recounted this story before:
    A young relative of mine — a dedicated left-wing activist — got a gig with an NGO to go to Papua New Guinea, where she and a team of fellow progressive do-gooders were to build a “hospital” (i.e. a one-room medical clinic) in which tribal Papuans could receive medical care. Now, skipping over much of the story (in which she and her fellow do-gooders by their very presence altered and disrupted the native lifestyle), she and I entered into a correspondence during her stay there, and over the course of several emails I expressed an ever-increasing skepticism about the efficacy and moral consistency of her project. Eventually I asked her point blank whether or nor she had considered if her hospital might permanently destroy the pristine “noble savage” tribal universe of these isolated Papuans; that they had survived on that island for thousands and thousands of years with no help or interference from “the white man,” and that perhaps their society’s delicate balance is dependent on people having a relatively short lifespan — that if advanced medicine were to keep all the Papuans alive well into their 70s and 80s (instead of the average 50-year lifespan they currently have), then their internal economy would collapse, with a huge burden of elderly people to care for. (The same problem that is currently happening to Japan and which is soon to befall the US, btw.) Anyway, I questioned whether or not she had ever stopped to consider the long-term unseen consequences of her progressive actions. Turns out, of course, that she had not, and she became furious at me for destroying her utopian fantasyworld; her dreams shattered, she left the project early and came home angry and depressed. Since then, she has not continued her activism. So at least this story has a happy ending!

  • johnfromcolumbus

    The road to Hell is paved with Myopic Good Intentions.  

  • 11B40

    Harkening back to the joys of my misspent youth in the Bronx of the ’50s and ’60s, there was a bit of folk wisdom that assured that the first piece of equipment every auto-glass shop bought was a pellet gun.

  • Indigo Red

    A few months back, I was listening to an NPR story about a tailor. He was a very special type of tailor, one of a dying breed. He wasn’t just a glorified seamster who follows a pre-set pattern to turn out men’s suits by the thousands on a somewhat personalized assembly line. No, not he. Rather, he constructed clothing from the ground up from the many individual measurements that make up each male body. The suits he made were one of a kind and would take months to create, limiting him the three or for suits per year and costing the client thousands of dollars. 
    His training and apprenticeship makes him a sought after tailor in high demand and one would think he would live in luxury as a result of his high priced creations. But, that is wrong. He lives a quiet lower middle class life making $30K – $40K a year. It’s for the love of his craft that he continues the trade with long hours, low pay, high skill and knowledge set. He would love to train more, however, he says, he cannot find young apprentices who are willing to study the craft for twelve years before being skilled enough to build suits alone. Why would anyone do that – study to be a skilled tailor?
    The NPR reporter was extremely impressed by the skill level and the time dedicated to learn the craft as a low paid apprentice to become one of the select few to work long hours for low pay creating beautiful men’s suits. He agonized that the current generation was unwilling to put in the time unless there were large rewards at the end in the form of money, nice homes and cars, travel to sophisticated and exotic places, the benefits of being skilled.
    My thought was, “Well, isn’t that how long it takes to become a doctor? Isn’t that the life a doctor leads during the apprenticeship period? Doesn’t the doctor in training desire and deserve the rewards of spending the time to become skilled enough to bring back the dead?” But, that is exactly what the new health care paradigm is demanding – work many years for low pay, long hours, no life outside the hospital, and none of the emoluments such a skilled job has afforded in the past all for the opportunity to work long hours, low pay, and no social rewards because it’s now the law. Why would anyone do that – study to be a skilled doctor?
    When I’ve used this story on my liberal friends, I get a blank stare and the response, “What have tailors and doctors to do with one another?” There’s no capacity to compare and contrast in the brain of a Liberal it seems.

  • David Foster

    Indigo Red…”When I’ve used this story on my liberal friends, I get a blank stare and the response, “What have tailors and doctors to do with one another?” There’s no capacity to compare and contrast in the brain of a Liberal it seems.”
    Higher education *should* help develop the ability to deal with abstractions; ie, among other things to understand commonalities which may not be immediately obvious, as between the tailor and the doctor.  Too often, it seems to have the opposite effect: it seems to lead not to fluency in abstract thinking, but to *concretizing abstraction*, ie to talking about categories (“the poor,” “the middle class,” etc) as if they were actual objects.

  • Indigo Red

    Ain’t that the truth, David!

  • David Foster

    There was a great quote, I believe from Hobbes, on the concretization of abstractions, but I’ve been unable to re-locate it…

  • Indigo Red

    Sure it was Hobbes? Mightn’t it have been Calvin?

  • David Foster

    No, it was the sort of thing a tiger would say…

  • johnfromcolumbus

    Whoops—’Cash for Clunkers’ Actually Hurt the Environment

  • Ymarsakar

    Rory Miller wrote a piece somewhat relative to the topic.
    “What they don’t see are the people who have been patiently waiting in line to come to America, but whose chances diminish as others skip the line entirely.”
    The IRS is one of the biggest tyrants in the US to begin with. American citizens don’t know much about it because… they don’t deal with them at all. Power imbalance.
    What Americans don’t see, precisely because the Left wishes them not to, are all the rape victims on the various coyote smuggling runs and convoys from Mexico to the US. All the kidnapped workers and their families, held hostage until the workers in the US “pay off the debt”. The 50% tax or more, that gets fed to human smugglers (including the child trafficers we saw ACORN familiarize themselves with) as well as the Mexican government and drug cartels for the privilege to “work” in the US.
    All of these problems, but none of them are things which the Left can make use of in their power mad death cult utopian schemes. At least, not yet. Eventually, however, they will find a way to manipulate people into believing that such things are either America’s fault, their political enemy’s fault, or just the Republican’s fault. When that day happens (when, not if), they will have a stronger grasp on migrant workers from mexico and they will suddenly allow the media to present news of such incidents. And it will happen as if it suddenly began, to American eyes. When it had been happening for decades.
    The power of the Left and their propaganda arm knows no bounds, for there is no such thing as limited powers when one speaks of mad racist totalitarian regime eugenicists.

  • Ymarsakar

    The other point Miller made concerned nature. We are often told the natural is good, and thus we should emulate it. Yet we often find the savagery of nature not only to be the most pristine state we have ever met of non human interference, but also the most cruel and the harshest, equal to Hobbs’ metaphysics.
    Good, compassion, equality, these are not natural things, but man made and man created artifacts. Made of a desire and will, nothing more, and if man didn’t exist, neither would such things exist.
    I have yet to see gender equality amongst lions. I have yet to see compassion from hyenas. I have yet to see the old being taken care of by the young in herds. When an outlier exists, we all rush to it, but the very state of the freakish nature of such things existing in the world calls into focus how rare it is for the so called noble animal kingdom of savages.
    The Left attempts to apply some of this noblesse to tribals as well, except perhaps without the oblige.
    In retrospect, the Left seems to desire a world crueler than what the current one is under a natural state. By using human power to create savagery and destruction not equal, but beyond what nature itself has created on planet Earth. Now that’s a goal to vote for in your so called “democracy”. Since most people wouldn’t hear of it, it must be kept hidden, people must be allowed their self deceptions.
    I’m not sure what will become of humanity in such a state, but it isn’t good. It wasn’t good 3000 years ago in the pristine “natural Gaia” we had, and it won’t be good in the Left’s “pristine non-human Utopia” either.

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