All Commentary
Saturday, December 1, 1973

Time-Lapse Thinking

Economics… is the science of tracing the effects of some proposed or existing policy not only on some special interest in the short run, but on the general interest in the long run.

Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson

Most politico-economic policies in our time are in response to the demands of this or that special interest or pressure group, while the general interest is ignored. Further, the long-run effect is overlooked in order that short-run “gains”  may be achieved. This is the road to disaster, and no turnabout is possible short of a greater reliance on time-lapse thinking. Let Walt Disney’s demonstration explain what I mean by time-lapse thinking.

Disney planted a rose seedling and made a motion picture of its growth, flicking a single frame every day or so until the plant was mature and the rose had bloomed. When he showed this film on a screen at sixteen frames per second, we then witnessed the whole beautiful phenomenon — the unfolding of a rosebud — in a minute or two. Disney’s time-lapse photography enabled us to experience an improvement in frequency perception; that is, the viewers were able to see the long-run effects of short-run causes. This is why I suggest the urgency of some time-lapse thinking.

While time-lapse photography and time-lapse thinking are similar in that each collapses time, there is an important difference. The former reduces the time between causes and effects that have already taken place; the latter requires that time be collapsed as related to future effects of present causes. True, no person has a crystal ball, nor could he read it if he had one. Yet, I believe there is a way of foreseeing what effects certain actions will have.

Carry this belief a step further. The easiest and perhaps the only way to be certain that a short-run action is a gain or loss is to discover what its long-run effects will be. Why? There is no such thing as a short-run gain that is not also a long-run gain, and vice versa. As Emerson wrote, “The end pre-exists in the means.”  It is axiomatic that constructive service of the individual’s purposes or of the general interest can never emerge from destructive means. Thus, collapse time, resort to time-lapse thinking, to evaluate day-to-day actions.

No Future in It

To illustrate: Is thievery a short-run gain for the thief? Most thieves think it is or they would not steal. Having a stunted perception, they fail to realize that the loss in life-values far exceeds the gain in loot. Were the thief capable of time-lapse thinking, he would clearly see that a population of thieves would perish. The long-run effect would be disastrous; therefore, the short-run action — the means — is disastrous and evil.

Direct theft is practiced by comparatively few of the total population. Most people find it unnecessary to do time-lapse thinking to put thievery in its proper place. However, millions of these same people not only condone but participate in legal plunder, that is, they urge government to do the looting for them. They see nothing wrong with this; indeed, they regard the loot as a gain. Perhaps the only way for them to set their thinking straight is a resort to time-lapse thinking.

In a nutshell, let these millions project their practices into the future — everyone doing what the few are now doing, that is, everyone being paid for not working. Clearly, were there no work there would be no loot to take, nothing to plunder. As with thievery, all would perish. By the simple device of collapsing time, the future effect of their present actions would become obvious. Thus, living off others is not even a short-run gain. A few paltry dollars at the price of surrendering responsibility for self — the very essence of being — amounts to an enormous net loss.

A Total Loss

Many farmers get paid for not farming and regard the payments as gains. Apply this political nostrum to all productive activity, not only getting paid for not farming but getting paid for not generating electricity, not drilling for and refining oil, not making clothes and autos, and so on. Project such practices into the future and observe the self-evident consequences. Time-lapse thinking will reveal the fallacy; it will serve as an eye-opener, a needed shock treatment. All losses now!

Reflect on the businessmen who seek political protection against competition, domestic as well as foreign. Assume the universality of this craving for short-run “gains” and then assess the future. What would be the economic picture? What would it look like? Ancient feudalism or medieval mercantilism or modern communism!

No need for more illustrations; a thousand and one could be cited. Time-lapse thinking not only is invaluable in deciding on sound economic policy but can be used to arrive at the correctness of present actions in all fields — education, religion, politics, or whatever.

From such thinking stems this helpful conclusion: fret not for the morrow, only for today. Why? Because the morrow is a life-style edifice structured from today’s actions. Wrote Addison: “This is the world of seeds, of causes, and of tendencies; the other is the world of harvests and results and of perfected and eternal consequences.”  Thus, if today’s actions are as right as one can make them, then the morrow is as good as it can be.

My gratitude to Henry Hazlitt for his philosophy, and to Walt Disney for his technology. I have merely strung their pearls of wisdom on a single thread.



Overlooking Secondary Consequences

In addition to these endless pleadings of self-interest, there is a second main factor that spawns new economic fallacies every day. This is the persistent tendency of men to see only the immediate effects of a given policy, or its effects only on a special group, and to neglect to inquire what the long-run effects of that policy will be not only on that special group but on all groups. It is the fallacy of overlooking secondary consequences.

In this lies almost the whole difference between good economics and bad.

HENRY HAZLITT, Economics in One Lesson 

  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”