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A Marvel of Cooperation: How Order Emerges without a Conscious Planner

By Russ Roberts

One of the great virtues of economics is how it illuminates the unseen and the hidden. Frederic Bastiat, in his classic essay, What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen, analyzed the economic consequences of a simple act of vandalism, the broken window. We see the broken window. We see or can imagine the consequences of the broken window—more money for the glazier. What is harder to see and imagine is what is not seen—the economic activity that will not take place because the window must be fixed.

This simple example is a fundamental reminder of the scarcity that constrains our choices at a point in time. Bastiat used the metaphor of the broken window to critique policy recommendations whose promises of success often ignored the inevitable scarcity that must always apply at a point in time—resources used for one purpose can no longer be used elsewhere.

But Bastiat had another insight about the seen and the unseen that is less appreciated than his classic metaphor of the broken window. In Chapter 18 of Economic Sophisms, Bastiat asks why is it than no one goes to sleep anxiously in Paris, worried about whether there will be bread and other items available for purchase in the morning:

Read the full article at The Library of Economics and Liberty

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