The Seen and the Unseen

Frederic Bastiat wrote about “The Seen and the Unseen”, essentially describing what economists call “opportunity cost”.  What this means is that while you can see the effect of money being spent–as in the case of money spent to fix a broken window (the classic example) puts money in the glazier’s pocket which he can then go and do other things with, what you don’t see is what else the person might have done with that money if he hadn’t had to fix that broken window.  Once you start looking deeper at those things, a different picture emerges.  The person, instead of fixing the window (since it’s not broken) buys a new suit of clothes, and the clothier then goes and does other things and…the upshot is the economy is ahead by one suit of clothes over the broken window case. (This is called “The Broken Window Fallacy”–look it up.)

The same principle applies in fields other than economics.  Take, for instance, what happens any time a high-profile crime (especially when the crime involves guns, but it doesn’t have to be) and people call for more “gun control” and the argument is “don’t you care about (the victims of that crime).”

Yes, I do care about the victims of those crimes.  But that is the “seen”.  I also care about the “unseen.” I care about the little girl whose father was accosted on the way home but whose attackers fled on seeing that the father was armed.  I care that she wasn’t rendered fatherless, or at the very least her father’s ability to provide for her reduced.  I care about the woman who was not raped because she was able to pull a gun on her putative rapist.  I care about not just the patrons and employees of a store not robbed because an employee or customer was armed; not just them but all the future patrons and employees of other stores that will not be robbed because that robber was stopped.  I care about the neighborhoods that riots diverted around, and the people living in them, because people living in them, armed people, presented a clear message of “this line you do not cross.”

I care about the hundreds to thousands of times (minimum) every day that crimes do not happen because people are armed for their own protection.

But these are the “unseen.” News doesn’t report “crimes that never happen.” People who aren’t robbed or raped or victims of battery often do not report the crime that didn’t happen to the police.  People alive, healthy, unmolested because they’re armed.  A “silent population” that doesn’t make headlines.

That these things are often not reported present a difficulty to attempts to study the phenomenon.  At the very low end, a survey of crime victims, we get numbers like 70,000 per year.  The problem with that one is that, again, it’s only the “seen”:  crime victims.  People who were not victims, who never reported the incident, usually where simply presenting the gun causes the criminals to flee, are excluded by its very nature.  So it’s going to be low.  But even there that’s twice as many people defending themselves with guns as being killed by people using guns.  And if we exclude suicides (the presence of a gun may affect choice of method; it does not render a non-suicidal person suddenly suicidal) it’s 4-5 times as many as are murdered with guns.

Most studies, which attempt to quantify the number of gun uses including those not reported to the police produce estimates ranging from 500,000 to a high of 3 million every year.  Even at the low end that’s better than half again as many as the total number of guns being used to commit crimes (300,000 for the year in 2008–and, incidentally violent crime in general and crime committed using firearms is down from 2008’s levels.  See the chart I generated here.)

This is the great unseen, not just because it’s not obvious without careful thought and study, but because the people who are publicly wringing their hands over the latest atrocity and using it to stampede you into agreeing with their political demands don’t want you to see it.  They’re purposely silent on this other side and, indeed, belittling those supporting it, playing the “don’t you care…” game.

So when people put up pictures of the latest atrocity up on your screens and asking “don’t you care” remember the others, the people you don’t see, the people who are able to go about their lives safe and unmolested that those putting the pictures up would have you forget.

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