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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Free Market’s Invisibility Problem

Libertarians Need More Visual Strategies to Advertise Their Beliefs

Joseph Packer is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Communication.

Advocates of liberty face an invisibility problem, first identified by nineteenth-century French libertarian Frédéric Bastiat in the appropriately titled essay “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen.” Through a simple story, Bastiat exposed the fallacy that later underlay Keynesian economics.

A young boy breaks a shopkeeper’s window, initially sparking outrage from the townspeople. When the locals begin to discuss the incident, they conclude that there is a positive side. The glass will need to be replaced, making work for the glazier. The glazier will spend the money he makes on bread. The baker will then spend that money, and so on. The townspeople offer consolation to the victim: “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?”

Wait! Bastiat says. “Your theory stops at what is seen. It does not take account of what is not seen.” The mistake in their reasoning is that the townspeople do not consider what use the shopkeeper would have put his money to had he not spent it fixing the window. Perhaps the shopkeeper would have purchased a new hat, giving work to the local haberdasher, or placed the money in a bank, which would then lend it as capital for an entrepreneur. The poor reasoning of the townspeople has become known as the broken-window fallacy.

The Persistence of the Fallacy

Critical reflection should make it clear what is lost through the youth’s vandalism, and yet the broken-window fallacy seems ever present in our society. Paul Krugman even used it to suggest that the September 11 attacks would boost economic growth because of the costs of reconstruction. (“The driving force behind the economic slowdown has been a plunge in business investment. Now, all of a sudden, we need some new office buildings. As I’ve already indicated, the destruction isn’t big compared with the economy, but rebuilding will generate at least some increase in business spending,” “Reckonings; after the Horror,” New York Times, Sept. 14, 2001;

Bastiat’s title clearly identifies what lies behind the persistence of this fallacious reasoning. The importance of visuals for argumentation has only grown since Bastiat’s time. Much effort has been expended by libertarians in making the case for how the market could address any number of potential problems. This is important work, but presenting a brilliantly argued case for libertarianism only means success in a world of completely rational people. If we were living in that world, libertarianism would have prevailed long ago. The charts and graphs (the seemingly lone visual aids) trotted out by economists to make the case for laissez-faire economics are more likely to put audiences to sleep than inspire them to action. Defenders of the free market need new visual rhetorical strategies that highlight the human costs of intervention.

Emmanuel Lévinas, a French philosopher who wrote extensively on ethics, rooted the ethical obligation between human beings as one that stems from direct viewing of the human “face.” The case of Jessica McClure seems to confirm Lévinas’s theory. Jessica fell into a well in 1987. Her plight drew massive attention and resources that could have saved countless more lives if put to other uses. The visual image of a child stuck at the bottom of a well created an irrational prioritization of her case. A review of the relevant psychological literature by Paul Slovic, president of Decision Research, offers a more comprehensive confirmation. He found that individuals were more likely to donate money to individuals rather than groups, and smaller groups rather than larger ones. Researchers attribute this to human beings having an easier time empathizing with small groups, combined with smaller groups contributing to a stronger feeling of being able to create actual change. Slovic also found individuals were much more willing to donate money to a cause if a picture of those suffering was available. He concluded his review of the literature by saying that statistics of human suffering have had and will continue to have a terrible track record of promoting action. As Stalin is often alleged to have said, “One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.” The innate human desire to prioritize the visual gives a strong rhetorical edge to opponents of the free market.

Modern-day statists seem incredibly adept at commanding the attention of the public. Have you ever noticed how there exists an unending stream of documentaries criticizing the free market? Roger and Me, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, This Is What Democracy Looks Like, and Sicko are some of the titles that immediately pop to mind. I can’t remember ever seeing a libertarian documentary being widely promoted, despite the fact that libertarians make up roughly 13 percent of the American population, according to research by David Boaz and David Kirby.

Is there an American over the age of 25 who does not remember the terrible images from the Exxon Valdez oil spill? These images evoke strong anti-corporate feelings even though the company has now spent over $3 billion to alleviate the environmental impacts and has paid restitution to the affected fishing industry.

How many individuals have seen pictures, much less heard of, the Milwaukee disaster? Over 400 times as much pollution was knowingly dumped in Lake Michigan in 2004 by local governments that understood they would not be held accountable. Americans have been inundated with pictures of melting icecaps, but have they seen pictures of the children starving because of our energy policies? Numerous studies show that government policies pushing ethanol as a solution to global warming act to raise food prices, leaving the world’s poorest to starve. This on top of the fact that most scientists believe the corn ethanol being pushed by the government will have no effect on warming. Many Americans have been confronted with images of children working in factories; however, they do not see the images of the 5,000 Nepalese girls forced into prostitution because of U.S. trade sanctions against child labor. These facts are not secret, but their lack of visual presence means they are all but invisible to most Americans.

The Effectiveness of Imagery

Imagery is effective, especially when combined with skillful storytelling. If you can honestly tell me that you watched Roger and Me without being overcome with deep grief and anguish, then you must have a heart of stone. And recall what images stay with you from Roger and Me. Although Michael Moore offers statistical representations of the economic downturn of Flint, Michigan, it’s the images of individuals evicted from their homes that haunt me. It is only by removing myself from the movie and viewing it in the larger context of the positive effects of outsourcing that I can see the flaws in Moore’s logic. Unfortunately, I don’t think most Americans have the patience or a strong enough background in libertarian thought to be able to take on this task. (I know I didn’t until many years after seeing the film.) Libertarians can cry “unfair” and write all the scathing reviews they want, but both history and the relevant scientific data indicate that it will do little good.

Instead they need to take up the tactics long deployed by the statists. Although we have a late start, we also have the enormous advantage of having a much stronger position to advocate. Historically, libertarians have used this great strength against themselves by assuming that truth alone would be enough to win the day. Libertarians must learn a lesson that the marketplace has taught the business community over and over again: having the best product is not enough. This does not mean ending the scholarly work that delves into the nitty-gritty of what a world free of statist policies would look like. Nor does this mean ending the statistical work that so effectively makes the case for free markets. (Both of these things were instrumental in converting me and many others to libertarianism.)

Instead it means recognizing that a comprehensive case is not always as valuable in swaying public opinion as having effective case studies that take visual form. This sad fact has been proven time and time again when isolated incidents of highly visible “market failure” (Enron, Exxon Valdez, and so on) are taken as opportunities to usher in sweeping regulation. Initial forays into visual argumentation by libertarians have already proven largely successful, whether Ron Paul’s enormous presence on YouTube or John Stossel’s investigative journalism on “20/20.” Libertarians need to open a third front that tackles the statists in the visual realm, where they have too long held a dangerous monopoly.

You can read a Portuguese version of this article here

Works Used

  1. Frédéric Bastiat, “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen,” (1850),
  2. David Boaz and David Kirby, “The Libertarian Vote,” Policy Analysis no. 580 (2006),
  3. Paul Krugman, “Reckonings; after the Horror,” New York Times, Sept. 14, 2001.
  4. Emmanuel Lévinas and Seán Hand, The Levinas Reader, Translated by Seán Hand and Michael Temple, Blackwell Readers. Oxford, UK; Cambridge, Mass.: B. Blackwell, 1989.
  5. Phil McKenna, “Corn Biofuel ‘Dangerously Oversold’ as Green Energy,” New Scientist (2007).
  6. Johan Norberg, In Defense of Global Capitalism, Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 2003.
  7. James R. Otteson, Actual Ethics, Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  8. C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer, “How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor,” Foreign Affairs (2007).
  9. Paul Slovic, “ ‘If I Look at the Mass I Will Never Act’: Psychic Numbing and Genocide,” Judgment and Decision Making 2, no. 2 (2007): 79–95.