Empathetic Judges Are Unjust to Bastiat’s “Unseen”

(p. A15) . . . , a compassionate judge would tend to base his or her decisions on sympathy for the unfortunate; an empathetic judge on how the people directly affected by the decision would think and feel. What could be wrong with that?

Frederic Bastiat answered that question in his famous 1850 essay, “What is Seen and What is Not Seen.” There the economist and member of the French parliament pointed out that law “produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.” Bastiat further noted that “[t]here is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: 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.”
This observation is just as true for judges as it is for economists. As important as compassion and empathy are, one can have these feelings only for people that exist and that one knows about — that is, for those who are “seen.”
One can have compassion for workers who lose their jobs when a plant closes. They can be seen. One cannot have compassion for unknown persons in other industries who do not receive job offers when a compassionate government subsidizes an unprofitable plant. The potential employees not hired are unseen.

For the full commentary, see:
JOHN HASNAS. “The ‘Unseen’ Deserve Empathy, Too.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., MAY 29, 2009): A15.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

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