Acton Commentary

Discounting the Unseen


Discounting the Unseen

There is an apparent natural human tendency to favor what is immediate to our senses over what is distant. Often this is practically sensible if not necessary to survival. The astronaut Chris Hadfield says that for space travel an effective way to manage risk is “to keep reminding yourself… What’s the next thing that’s going to kill me?” Hadfield describes interaction with the immediate threat as something that “might be five seconds away, it might be an inadvertent engine shutdown, or it might be staging of the solid rockets coming off.” When a fatal accident can happen at any moment, it makes sense to pay close attention to the most proximate and probable threat.

The danger of this kind of approach in itself, however -- what is often called “the tyranny of the present” -- is a problematic short-termism that stunts development and growth over the longer term. As the nineteenth-century French essayist Frédéric Bastiat put it, the ability to judge properly between the immediate and more distant consequences of an action was crucial for sound economics: “The bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.” If we acknowledge that humans have a propensity to discount the unseen, though, the deleterious effects are to be found not only in the economic realm.

Consider, for instance, the tendency of a husband who works outside the home all day to come home and make assumptions about what has happened during his absence. If dinner isn’t ready and the house is a mess, if he’s anything like me his first instinct will be to mentally (if he is prudent) or verbally (if he is imprudent) chastise his wife for her sloth. After all, she’s had all day to take care of things while he’s been slogging through TPS reports and navigating spreadsheets. If the chores aren’t done, then she must have been wasting time. Similarly the wife might imagine that the husband’s day at the office has been fulfilling and rewarding, while she’s been stuck at home dealing with recalcitrant children and malfunctioning appliances.

Likewise in the workplace there is a tendency to discount what is unseen. Everyone knows that if you work on first shift, then you are the ones who get the lion’s share of the work done, while those stiffs on second shift take it easy. And if you happen to work on second shift, then you know that second shift picks up all the slack and fixes all those mistakes made on first shift. And both first and second shift workers wonder what those strange people who work third shift do all night.

As Bastiat observed, middlemen are perhaps the most maligned of all participants in a market economy, and this is generally due to the fact that the service they render is largely unseen. There are those, says Bastiat, who “would willingly eliminate the capitalist, the banker, the speculator, the entrepreneur, the businessman, and the merchant, accusing them of interposing themselves between producer and consumer in order to fleece them both, without giving them anything of value.” But as Bastiat continues, the fact that, for instance, the consumer does not need to travel to the wheat field to get basic supplies from the producer illustrates that the middleman has provided something of value. “If someone else, whoever he may be,” writes Bastiat, “performs this service for him and takes the task on himself, this other person has a right to compensation.”

It isn’t just our fellow human beings whose contributions we tend to discount. All too often we misjudge and underestimate the unseen things that God provides for us every second of every day. The reformer John Calvin, in a memorable passage, enumerated the various dangers that continually confront us: “Innumerable are the ills which beset human life, and present death in as many different forms.” In addition to our bodies, which Calvin describes as a “receptacle” or “nurse” of disease, we are surrounded externally by potentially fatal objects that “not only may do harm, but almost openly threaten and seem to present immediate death. Go on board a ship, you are but a plank’s breadth from death. Mount a horse, the stumbling of a foot endangers your life. Walk along the streets, every tile upon the roofs is a source of danger. If a sharp instrument is in your own hand, or that of a friend, the possible harm is manifest.” Calvin goes on at some length in this passage to bring to our minds the unseen and unappreciated dangers that are around us all the time.

But we owe our survival, amid all these dangers, to divine providence. The Christian’s comfort, says Calvin, is “that his heavenly Father so embraces all things under his power—so governs them at will by his nod—so regulates them by his wisdom, that nothing takes place save according to his appointment; that received into his favour, and entrusted to the care of his angels neither fire, nor water, nor sword, can do him harm, except in so far as God their master is pleased to permit.”

Space walk

Unlike Commander Hadfield, most of us have the luxury of taking for granted our relative safety every day. And yet when we do not properly appreciate the providence of God that protects us from so many unseen dangers we manifest our human tendency toward ingratitude. In spiritual as well as in temporal matters we take for granted our everyday graces.

Astronauts like Commander Hadfield must examine the next potentially fatal accident, but as he puts it, “We don't just live with that, though.” The response to the potential danger is to prepare for it ahead of time: “We go into every excruciating detail of why that might affect what we're doing and what we can do to resolve it and have a plan, and be comfortable with it.” That preparation makes all the difference. “It's not like astronauts are braver than other people,” says Hadfield, “we're just meticulously prepared.”

Similarly the Christian ought to be prepared to acknowledge and be grateful for all the unseen graces that surround us every day. We owe it to our neighbors as well as to God not to discount the unseen.