Because nobody else can understand them, modern economists speak to one another. They gossip in algebra and remonstrate in differential calculus. And when the pungently correct mathematical equation doesn't occur to them, they awkwardly fall back on the English language, like a middle-aged American trying to remember his high-school Spanish. The economist Frédéric Bastiat, who lived in the first half of the 19th century, wrote in French, not symbols. But his words—forceful, clear and witty—live to this day
The name will ring a bell. Like FEMA and the Red Cross, Bastiat is a staple of American disaster reportage. Post-cyclone, -hurricane or –tsunami, some Keynsian Pollyanna will chirp that the rebuilding will stimulate economic growth. Bastiat dealt with this fallacy in an essay published in 1850, the year of his death at the age of 49. Rebuilding does indeed set money flowing, he allowed, and the rebuilders are glad of it. This is what is seen. But purchases that would have been made in the absence of the disaster now will never occur. And that is what is unseen. "That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Not Seen," the title of the clarifying essay, might be the wisest 10 words in economic analysis.
Bastiat's short essays, which he grouped under the title "Economic Sophisms," are beloved by friends of laissez-faire. Late in the 19th century, small-government Democrats quoted him on the floor of the House against the high-tariff schemes of the GOP. The Republicans groaned when they heard Bastiat's name. Unable to answer his arguments against government economic intervention, they charged him with being French.
Familiar though Bastiat's economic writings may be, his letters, until now, have been available only in their original language. "The Man and the Statesman," the first in a projected English-language edition of Bastiat's collected works, encompasses 209 letters as well as a sampler of his political essays and notes and a helpful glossary from the editors (Jacques de Guenin, Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean and David M. Hart). But the letters are the thing. Through them shines the most charming economist you have ever met.