Black Swan and Bastiat

January 31st, 2012

This passage from Black Swan will prove quite useful for my future work (and really ties in nicely with my thinking on social cost):

Katrina, the devastating hurricane that hit New Orleans in 2005, got plenty of politicizing politicians on television. These legislators, moved by the images of devastation and the pictures of angry victims made homeless, made promises of “rebuilding.” It was so noble on their part to do something humanitarian, to rise above our abject selfishness. Did they promise to do so with their own money? No. It was with public money. Consider that such funds will be taken away from somewhere else, as in the saying “You take from Peter to give to Paul.” That somewhere else will be less mediatized. It may be privately funded cancer research, or the next efforts to curb diabetes. Few seem to pay attention to the victims of cancer lying lonely in a state of untelevised depression. Not only do these cancer patients not vote (they will be dead by the next ballot), but they do not manifest themselves to our emotional system. More of them die every day than were killed by Hurricane Katrina; they are the ones who need us the most—not just our financial help, but our attention and kindness. And they may be the ones from whom the money will be taken—indirectly, perhaps even directly. Money (public or private) taken away from research might be responsible for killing them—in a crime that may remain silent. A ramification of the idea concerns our decision making under a cloud of possibilities. We see the obvious and visible consequences, not the invisible and less obvious ones. Yet those unseen consequences can be—nay, generally are—more meaningful. Frédéric Bastiat was a nineteenth-century humanist of a strange variety, one of those rare independent thinkers—independent to the point of being unknown in his own country, France, since his ideas ran counter to French political orthodoxy (he joins another of my favorite thinkers, Pierre Bayle, in being unknown at home and in his own language). But he has a large number of followers in America. In his essay “What We See and What We Don’t See,” Bastiat offered the following idea: we can see what governments do, and therefore sing their praises—but we do not see the alternative. But there is an alternative; it is less obvious and remains unseen. Recall the confirmation fallacy: governments are great at telling you what they did, but not what they did not do. In fact, they engage in what could be as phony “philanthropy,” the activity of helping people in a visible and sensational way without taking into account the unseen cemetery of invisible consequences. Bastiat inspired libertarians by attacking the usual arguments that showed the benefits of governments. But his ideas can be generalized to apply to both the Right and the Left. Bastiat goes a bit deeper. If both the positive and the negative consequences of an action fell on its author, our learning would be fast. But often an action’s positive consequences benefit only its author, since they are visible, while the negative consequences, being invisible, apply to others, with a net cost to society. Consider job-protection measures: you notice those whose jobs are made safe and ascribe social benefits to such protections. You do not notice the effect on those who cannot find a job as a result, since the measure will reduce job openings. In some cases, as with the cancer patients who may be punished by Katrina, the positive consequences of an action will immediately benefit the politicians and phony humanitarians, while the negative ones take a long time to appear—they may never become noticeable. One can even blame the press for directing charitable contributions toward those who may need them the least. Let us apply this reasoning to September 11, 2001. Around twenty-five hundred people were directly killed by bin Laden’s group in the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Their families benefited from the support of all manner of agencies and charities, as they should. But, according to researchers, during the remaining three months of the year, close to one thousand people died as silent victims of the terrorists. How? Those who were afraid of flying and switched to driving ran an increased risk of death. There was evidence of an increase of casualties on the road during that period; the road is considerably more lethal than the skies. These families got no support—they did not even know that their loved ones were also the victims of bin Laden. In addition to Bastiat, I have a weakness for Ralph Nader (the activist and consumer advocate, certainly not the politician and political thinker). He may be the American citizen who saved the highest number of lives by exposing the safety record of car companies. But, in his political campaign a few years ago, even he forgot to trumpet the tens of thousands of lives saved by his seat belt laws. It is much easier to sell “Look what I did for you” than “Look what I avoided for you.” Recall from the Prologue the story of the hypothetical legislator whose actions might have avoided the attack of September 11. How many such people are walking the street without the upright gait of the phony hero? Have the guts to consider the silent consequences when standing in front of the next snake-oil humanitarian.


Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2010-05-04). The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: With a new section: “On Robustness and Fragility” (Kindle Locations 2739-2760). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.