The Brexit negotiations are causing lots of anxiety about Britain’s future – about what kind of trade deal we’ll strike, whether we’ll be hurt by tariffs, and what kind of tax system we’ll adopt – provoking many contentious talking points, and arousing the interest of many people who might otherwise have been less interested.
If there is one thing that enhances understanding of these and other societal issues more than any other, I think it is understanding what the great economist Frederic Bastiat called the ‘seen and unseen’. That is, often those who champion bad policies habitually focus on the policies’ ‘good’ parts and who gains from them, but often miss the ‘bad’ parts and who loses out from them.
Minimum wage laws are beneficial for some low earners but costly for employers of low-skilled labour and people just below that rung of the ladder in the employment market. Rent controls are beneficial for some tenants but they are costly for landlords, and more widely developers and builders. Low interest rates are beneficial for borrowers, but costly for lenders.
Moreover, Bastiat’s ‘unseen’ identifies the valuable things that don’t happen at all because of an unwise policy – like the jobs that never get created because of a wasteful expenditure, or the things that never get made because the material resources are being consumed elsewhere, or the sale that never happens because of a regulation.
St. Paul had something to say about a Christian rendering of the ‘seen’ and ‘unseen’ too. He insists we don’t fix ourselves on the temporary ‘seen’ things, but instead fix ourselves on the ‘unseen’ things – promising us that the unseen destination is where we’ll enjoy eternal glory.
Perhaps the equivalent to Bastiat’s political observation is that when it comes to knowing Christ there is an awful lot going on in the ‘seen’ realm of the world that easily distracts us from the more valuable qualities of the ‘unseen’ realm. In fact, it may even be the case that sometimes politics is like this. Yes, a divisive President like Trump or a radical departure from the EU are important things – but do they sometimes preoccupy our attention so much that the ‘seen’ of everyday life takes our focus off the ‘unseen’ of Christ in our lives? A full life involves Christ-centred discipleship in our earthly ‘seen’ realm, in preparation for when the ‘unseen’ kingdom comes.