Sectoral employment shift can be unpleasant, but that’s no reason to deny that they are necessary. After all, in 1900 over 90% of American were employed in agriculture, and no wits less than 5%. Surely you don’t think it would be better if that change hadn’t happened?
He’s right, of course, but I think the answer in itself is unlikely to satisfy most people who are concerned about the highly visible loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector. From a Bastiatan perspective we can say that they are focusing only on what is seen, and not on what is unseen. The lost jobs are highly visible because they are so densely concentrated, and they make an emotionally compelling story. The new jobs are much less visible, being diffuse, and frequently created some place other than where the old jobs were located. If you’re looking in Flint, Michigan, for the jobs that are replacing auto manufacturing, you’re not going to spot them.
It would be easy to stop with the true, but dangerously smug, statement that people should look for what is not (immediately) seen, but there’s a deeper level at work. Bastiat’s example was quite simple: When a shopkeeper’s window gets broken, people see that the window glazer has more work, but they don’t see that the shoe maker–from whom the shopkeeper was planning to make a purchase–has less work. The example is simple because it’s asking us to consider two things that are happening concurrently, in the here and now. In this case, what is not seen can be seen, just by looking more closely.
But to have confidence that jobs–decent jobs, especially–will replace the lost manufacturing jobs asks us to see something that is in the future, something that largely has yet to occur. And James K’s example, while wholly accurate, doesn’t solve that problem. He shows us something that–now–can be seen easily. But that doesn’t really help us see something that can’t–yet–be seen. He gives us evidence, and then asks for faith.
I say “he” does this, but of course I do this, too.
The essential problem is failure of imagination. And I don’t mean just failure of the imagination of those who are more pessimistic about the future. Those of us who are more optimistic about the future, including James K and myself, don’t have the imagination to see just what is going to replace manufacturing jobs, anymore than anyone in the 1920s could see what would replace agricultural jobs.
This is where the study, even perhaps the somewhat casual study, of economics matters so much. Because for James K, as for myself, faith certainly seems like a word that’s not entirely accurate. He has theory–theory that is supported by both rigorous logic and historical evidence–underlying his confidence. Without the theory, without the rigorous logic, the historical evidence is no more than just-so stories. But the overwhelming proportion of the public, particularly those employed in manufacturing, don’t have that theory. It’s no wonder then that from their perspective our optimism sounds like nothing more than naive faith.l