In his classic 1850 essay “What is Seen and What is Not Seen,” Frédéric Bastiat taught more than the timeless lesson of what separates a good economist from a bad one. From the beginning of the essay, Bastiat applies his insights to our habits.
Consequences follow from our habits. Bastiat observed, “[I]t almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa… Often, the sweeter the first fruit of a habit, the more bitter are those that follow.” We are often unaware, or in denial, of the later consequences of our habits.
Bastiat explains that not seeing what is in front of our nose magnifies any weaknesses we may have. Our cost/benefit calculations are way off the mark, and our purpose in life is sabotaged. “When a man, touched by some effect that can be seen,” he writes, “has not yet learnt to discern those that are not seen, he gives way to disastrous habits, not just through inclination but deliberately.” As the Yankees’ sage Yogi Berra put it, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” Without self-discipline, you will certainly never come close to fulfilling your purpose.
We often assume self-discipline is fueled mainly by willpower. Poor self-discipline is an affliction that many suffer from. Experiments on willpower by contemporary psychologist Roy Baumeister are among the most famous in the social sciences. In surveys of “more than over one million people around the world,” when respondents were asked to name their greatest “character strengths,” “self-control was the one that people were least likely to recognize in themselves.”
We can cultivate willpower to break a habit, yet Bastiat gives us a powerful shortcut: Uncover the unseen consequences of our habits to see their true costs. When we stop fooling ourselves, look beyond our habits’ immediate benefits, and include “later consequences,” our costly habits will naturally fall away.
Bastiat’s shortcut comes with a price of admission that many of us refuse to pay. As we realize the actual cost of a habit, our unexamined beliefs come to the forefront so that they can be discarded. Writers such as Annie Grace and Alan Carr probably have never read Bastiat. Still, they have successfully applied the idea of becoming more aware of the unexamined costs of our habits. Their applications to alcohol and smoking have helped many relinquish long-standing habits relatively effortlessly.
Bastiat points the way to greater inner freedom. Inner freedom—the ability to live by our highest values and purpose—is compromised by poor habits. There is no inner freedom while habits fueled by unquestioned beliefs enslave us.
The Illiberal Habits of Mind
Much like the patterns of behavior we recognize as habits, habits of mind operate behind the scenes. Let’s apply Bastiat’s insight to examine habits of mind that are at odds with liberty. Like any mindset at odds with human flourishing, we can expose unseen and costly consequences of illiberal habits of mind.
Supporting government intervention in our lives is an illiberal habit of mind that costs us quite a lot. In his book Deeper than You Think, Leonard Read observes, “Most persons are no more conscious of liberty than of the air they breathe; thus, liberty is rarely prized and seldom defended, except in instances of sudden constraints.”
Lockdowns and forced vaccines to keep a job provoked reactions from many. Yet, people slept through the long build-up of executive power and unconstitutional, authoritarian, administrative power. Few saw the long-term consequences, so they only became outraged when the impact was immediate. Read writes:
Let the authoritarian suddenly outlaw the eating of bread, and the people will rise in wrath, claiming an affront to their liberty. But if the authoritarian installs programs which will eventually diminish what we eat by an oblique and a gradual approach— inflation, controls, paying farmers not to farm, and workers not to work, et cetera— few voices will be raised; hardly a person will sense any loss of liberty.
As freedom declines, government and bureaucratic action is seen as the immediate cause of our distress but Read challenges us to look in the mirror: “[W]hatever power of decision the authoritarian has over the people is precisely matched by the people’s voluntary powers that have been ceded or expropriated or, in any event, transmuted.” As always, Read is blunt: “It seems reasonable that liberty’s chances are enhanced as more of us recognize that the corruptive, coercive power which plagues society is first a take-over and then an inversion of individual liberties— yours and mine; that this evil we loathe has its origin in the ramshackle shape of our own intellectual and spiritual ramparts.”
Read reminds us that the defense of liberty is an inside job:
Liberty can no more be sustained by physical might, which we customarily associate with defense, than can an insight, a thought, a silent prayer. Liberty’s sole defender is the highly advanced mentality, this state being within the potential reach of an adequate number. The answer to the question, will they arise to it? will probably be found in the answer each of us gives to the question, will I try to arise to it?
Experience, Bastiat instructs, can be a brutal teacher. Experience “teaches us all the effects of an action by having us feel them, and we cannot fail to end up learning that fire burns, by burning ourselves.” But wouldn’t it be gentler, Bastiat asks, to cultivate foresight and train our minds to anticipate the effects that are not immediately seen?
In The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek helps learn the fundamental ideas that are the “foundation of the argument for liberty:”
It is through the mutually adjusted efforts of many people that more knowledge is utilized than any one individual possesses or than it is possible to synthesize intellectually; and it is through such utilization of dispersed knowledge that achievements are made possible greater than any single mind can foresee.
Today, not enough of us understand and believe that the “mutually adjusted efforts of many people” yield unfathomed benefits in human affairs that government and bureaucratic interventions cannot generate. Many value liberty only when they can tangibly see immediate benefits; Hayek explains such a mindset will never create enough support to sustain liberty:
[I]t follows that we shall not achieve its ends if we confine liberty to the particular instances where we know it will do good. Freedom granted only when it is known beforehand that its effects will be beneficial is not freedom. If we knew how freedom would be used, the case for it would largely disappear. We shall never get the benefits of freedom, never obtain those unforeseeable new developments for which it provides the opportunity, if it is not also granted where the uses made of it by some do not seem desirable.
Bastiat provides easy-to-understand intellectual firepower in defense of liberty. In his Economic Sophisms, Bastiat observed the wonders of the 19th century spontaneous order in Paris:
On entering Paris, which I had come to visit, I said to myself, Here are a million of human beings, who would all die in a short time if provisions of every kind ceased to flow towards this great metropolis. Imagination is baffled when it tries to appreciate the vast multiplicity of commodities which must enter to-morrow through the barriers in order to preserve the inhabitants from falling prey to the convulsions of famine, rebellion, and pillage.
As many of us do today, Parisians took the blessing of liberty for granted. “And yet all sleep at this moment, and their peaceful slumbers are not disturbed for a single instant by the prospect of such a frightful catastrophe. On the other hand, eighty departments have been labouring to-day, without concert, without any mutual understanding, for the provisioning of Paris.”
To rouse us from our slumber, Bastiat asks us to consider, “How does each succeeding day bring what is wanted, nothing more, nothing less, to so gigantic a market? What, then, is the ingenious and secret power which governs the astonishing regularity of movements so complicated, a regularity in which everybody has implicit faith, although happiness and life itself are at stake?”
The answer is straightforward: the freedom to act in our self-interest serves others. Bastiat writes,
That power is an absolute principle, the principle of freedom in transactions. We have faith in that inward light which Providence has placed in the heart of all men, and to which He has confided the preservation and indefinite amelioration of our species, namely, a regard to self-interest—since we must give it its right name— a principle so active, so vigilant, so foreseeing, when it is free in its action.
But couldn’t the spontaneous order of the market be tweaked just a little? Bastiat would counter with this question:
In what situation, I would ask, would the inhabitants of Paris be, if a minister should take it into his head to substitute for this power the combinations of his own genius, however superior we might suppose them to be—if he thought to subject to his supreme direction this prodigious mechanism, to hold the springs of it in his hands, to decide by whom, or in what manner, or on what conditions, everything needed should be produced, transported, exchanged, and consumed?
Bastiat asks us to look beyond the immediate effects of interventions and consider if government intervention “would multiply infinitely those sufferings, and spread over all our fellow-citizens those evils which at present affect only a small number of them.” Bastiat’s work reminds us it is foolish to take for granted the blessings of liberty; liberty fades away with each individual who adopts illiberal habits of mind.
Raising Consciousness to Support Liberty
In Anything That’s Peaceful, Read clearly explains a fundamental principle that supports liberty: “As to our common ground, each of us has a moral obligation not to impair the life, livelihood, liberty of others.” In Deeper than You Think, Read reminds us, “Since no man gains liberty by denying it to another, it follows that individual liberty is a voluntary, non-interfering power.”
When our consciousness is low, we can’t generalize this principle. We may cheer growing executive power when it supports our ends and only jeer when we oppose the desired outcome of the latest presidential decree. For example, some demand the right to abortion and simultaneously demand that others be vaccinated. We may desire peace, but only if our “enemy” is destroyed and humiliated first. We demand others be subjected to one size fits all public-school education while we luxuriate in how the market supports all our personal, idiosyncratic choices.
The key to breaking the illiberal mindset habit is being able to listen to what Read calls in his book Who’s Listening, “the Voice Within.” If you are familiar with Adam Smith’s “impartial spectator,” the concepts are related in that both “voices” take us far beyond our ego’s narrative and can help us see what was previously “not seen.” Read explains,
As distinguished from the process of hearing the Voices Without, listening to the Voice Within is shrouded in mystery. This Voice has been variously described as creativity, insight, intuition, invention, discovery, flashes of enlightenment— ideas coming to mind from who knows where! All the truth and righteousness known to man originates as the Voice Within. It is here, in ourselves as well as in others, that immense hidden powers lurk in the unconscious depths, that potentialities await tapping.
All of us can listen, but we can obstruct our willingness to listen. Read explores the internal barriers to listening to the voice within. Characteristically, Read shares values that will increase our listening ability. He advises us to be helpful, yet cautions us to relinquish “the craving habit to straighten out everybody’s affairs.” Crucially “growing humility and less cocksureness” will help teach “the glorious lesson that I may be mistaken.”
Read explains that character-based growth sets us “free to grow in consciousness simply because [we have] consciously rid [ourselves] of such obsessive preoccupations as referring to others as stupid.” Read adds, “Growth in consciousness is possible only in intellectual and spiritual freedom, that is, when the self is freed from managing or judging the lives of others. The better world begins with that man who attends to his inner freedom.”
“To the millions who are in a state of unawareness— the addicts of merriment and diversion,” Read wrote, “societal disarray” is not a problem. But for “the thoughtful individual who is bent on the freedom way of life,” Read advises, “life’s purpose” should be “growth in consciousness.” In other words, success in our outer purpose begins with our inner freedom. Never, Read writes, “has so much been required in the way of personal excellence to turn the trend toward freedom.”
Most will never appreciate liberty until it is lost. Do we value liberty? Are we willing to examine and shed faulty habits of mind? Until we do, as Montaigne put it, “No wind makes for him who has no destined port.” If enough of us value the “port” of inner freedom, liberty will be advanced, and we will avoid the worst consequences that many rightfully fear.