The Seen, the Unseen, and the Hidden Costs of Statism
Frédéric Bastiat famously observed that the state costs us in ways we can see and ways we cannot see. Economists tend to focus on the second type because they elude public perceptions. What inventions are we denied because of regulations? What might have been done with the resources that are diverted in taxes or higher prices due to protectionism? The answers demonstrate that, because of intervention, we are worse off than we know.
Sometimes, however, we should also look at the potentially seen costs of the state, if only because the state doesn't want us to see those either. These are the direct destructions caused by some state activity, most especially war. Seeing war in photographs changes things. It causes us to observe the state's war and what it is doing to people: us and them.
This is why the state doesn't want pictures of US wounded or dead circulating in public. The media mostly obey. Did you ever notice that? You are being shown only what the government wants you to see. The state does not want you to see dead soldiers or suffering families of those shot and killed.
Instead the state wants you to believe that the Iraq War is about patriotism, 9/11, national pride, the campaign to make you safer, the administering of justice, manhood and courage, and all the rest of the coverups for what war really is: murder and destruction paid for by you and me and made legal solely because it is the state and not someone else doing it.
Take a picture of dead soldier, or the child of a killed Iraqi family, broadcast it on your blog, and what happens? Photo journalist Zoriah Miller has found out. He was kicked out of his "embed," which is the name for the pack of journalists permitted to travel with a group of soldiers and report what those in command want reported. Afterwards, he was prohibited from traveling in any Marine-patrolled area of Iraq. The military command worked to get him kicked out of the country altogether.
Yes, it all seems very premodern and primitive, and contrary to all our pieties about the free flow of information — the First Amendment and all that. But from the government's point of view, it is running the war, and it should control what people know about it to the same extent it controls everything else about the war. As a result, after 4,000 dead soldiers, countless hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead, millions of wounded on all sides, there are only a handful of bloody pictures to be found anywhere.
Amazing isn't it, just how effective the state can actually be when it cares intensely about something? And why does it care so much? One reason, they say, is that photos provide the enemy with information about the effectiveness of their attack and the response. In effect, that's like claiming that anything but approved propaganda amounts to subversion and treason. In any case, we can be pretty darn sure that when the enemy makes a hit, the enemy knows about it.
Another claim — and actually they have said the same thing from World War I until the present day — their main interest is in protecting the families of the dead from shock, privacy violation, and humiliation. Maybe that sounds plausible, but another way to look at it is that the state is most especially interested in continuing to foster the myth that these kids are dying for their country, and there are no more important people to convince of that than the parents of the dead.
But actually, only the most naïve could possibly believe that this is what the rules are wholly about. They want to protect the rest of us from reality. The Vietnam War lost massive support at home when the military loosened up on photojournalism. The handful of pictures we have from World War II all date from a period after FDR too bowed to public pressure.
At one level, it is pathetic that we need pictures to underscore what war is all about. But since the ancient world, the masses at large have proven susceptible to believing every myth about the grandeur and glory of war. We imagine that we as a people are going abroad to bring justice, truth, and liberty to some unenlightened and threatening foreign tribe. This has been the constant theme since the ancient world.
Then we see the pictures. It turns out that the unenlightened tribe is a collection of individuals pretty much like us. They are made of flesh and blood, have families, worship God, and struggle with pretty much the same issues that all people everywhere have always struggled with. There is no great glory in killing them, nor in being killed by them.
But the state says that sometimes war is necessary. If our masters really believe that, why hide its costs? Let us see precisely what we are getting into here. If it is justified, let us see why and how, and let us observe what we are giving up in exchange for the just war.
The truth is that the state must hide not only its wars but all of its activities. It hides its inflation. It hides the effects of its taxation and its protectionism. It fears anyone who draws the cause-and-effect connection between its activities and their deleterious consequences for the rest of us. It is the most destructive force in our world. Because that truth is so momentous, the state does everything possible to hide the smallest drop of blood.
The state wants us to all go on with our lives, believing it, loving it, and seeing only the pictures it wants us to see.