Bastiat and Repentance: How Not to Get Out of a Recession

Blog post by Nathan Richardson on February 2, 2009
12Comments

Nathan Richardson

Vandalism will get us out of the recession! If a little kid throws a rock through your window, shouldn’t you thank him for boosting the economy?

In a previous post (The Benefits of Sin?), I described a misconception we sometimes have about sin and repentance. Dallin H. Oaks describes the misconception this way:

Some Latter-day Saints who wrongly think … that a little sinning will not hurt. … The adult versions [of this notion] are more sophisticated and more pernicious. Perhaps some would even assert that a person is better off after he has sinned and repented. “Get a little experience with sin,” one argument goes, “and then you will be better able to counsel and sympathize with sinners. You can always repent.” …

The idea … that one is better off after sinning and repenting are devilish lies of the adversary. … We do not have to have personal experience with the effects of serious transgressions to know that they are injurious to our souls and destructive of our eternal welfare.

I have shown elsewhere (“I am the Way … Unless You Find a Better One”) why this idea is so wrong, but there is one more question I’d like to address: why do we mortals come to this incorrect conclusion so often—often enough that modern prophets must continually address it? Why does this idea seem so sensible sometimes? What makes this illusion so compelling that it continues to pop up?

I have two possible reasons to suggest, the first having to do with our knowledge of the past and present (which I cover in this post), and the second having to do with our awe of Heavenly Father’s power and will (which I will cover in a follow-up post). The first reason involves an important lesson taught in a fantastic nineteenth-century pamphlet on economics.

Frederic Bastiat, “The Seen and the Unseen”

In 1848, one Frédéric Bastiat published a pamphlet on economics called “The Seen and the Unseen” (alternatively translated “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen”). He posits a scenario in which a little boy breaks a window, forcing his father to go spend money buying a new one. The neighbors shrug it off as harmless, even beneficial, consoling the father by saying, “Such accidents keep industry going. Everybody has to make a living. What would become of the glaziers [window makers] if no one ever broke a window?”2

Claude Frédéric Bastiat (1801–1850)

Bastiat goes on to point out the fallacy in this condolence.

Since our citizen has spent six francs for one thing, he will not be able to spend them for another. It is not seen that if he had not had a windowpane to replace, he would have replaced, for example, his worn-out shoes or added another book to his library. In brief, he would have put his six francs to some use or other for which he will not now have them. …

The window having been broken, the glass industry gets six francs’ worth of encouragement; that is what is seen. If the window had not been broken, the shoe industry (or some other) would have received six francs’ worth of encouragement; that is what is not seen. …

The reader must apply himself to observe that there are not only two people, but three, in the little drama that I have presented. The one, [the father], represents the consumer, reduced by destruction to one enjoyment [an intact window] instead of two [an intact window plus, for example, new shoes]. The other, under the figure of the glazier, shows us the producer whose industry the accident encourages. The third is the shoemaker (or any other manufacturer) whose industry is correspondingly discouraged by the same cause. It is this third person who is always in the shadow, and who, personifying what is not seen, is an essential element of the problem. It is he who makes us understand how absurd it is to see a profit in destruction.2

The destruction of the window pane seems helpful to the economy only when we consider just two people: the consumer and the producer. When we realize that there is a third party indirectly but intimately involved in the transaction, everything becomes clearer. Even though that third person, the might-have-been producer, technically never interacted with the father or the glazier, he is the vital unseen part of the equation. When we consider that unseen third person, it becomes obvious that destruction is neither helpful nor harmless, but rather harmful to an economy.

The Unseen Path of Growth

Just as there is not economic profit in destruction, there is not spiritual growth from sin. The lack of consideration for unseen possibilities, which Bastiat points out, is one thing that leads to this misconception about sin and repentance that Elder Oaks warns against. We can see two conditions fairly clearly: our present and our past, because we’ve been there. What we often do not see is a third condition: the possible-but-unrealized present that would have grown out of Christ-like obedience.

What might have been. When we look back at our past (A), it’s true that we’ve grown a lot in spite of sin (B). But if we could see how much and in what other areas we could have grown through obedience to the Father’s will (C), we would never conclude that sin in necessary or helpful.

Referring to the sin-repentance path on my adaptation of Elder Bateman’s chart, a person who has been through the repentance process will be at about the spot labeled B. In the past, before she deviated from the particular commandment in question, she was at the about the spot labeled A. In comparison to condition A, condition B is better, in that a person has more understanding, maturity, and experience than she did before.

Take for example a missionary who makes the mistake of Bible-bashing. At the beginning of her mission, she avoids the practice, but then she tries it out and gets into the habit of starting fruitless debates. Over the course of several months, she eventually learns that being combative is counter-productive and doesn’t result in true conversion. So she stops bashing. The contrast in her attitude and her results is remarkable. She gets better at recognizing when the Spirit is present, what drives it away, and how to resolve the concerns that really matter to her investigators. She now has important insights, reflected by her condition at point B.

She could compare her current condition to point A. That is, after all the wonderful things she’s learned, she looks back at her missionary abilities at the very beginning of her mission. It would be true to say, “Wow, I’ve learned so much since then. I’m a better teacher and a better missionary, and I’ve learned how to rely on the Spirit.” When she compares condition B (her present) with condition A (her past, before the point of departure from the Lord’s ways), she is absolutely correct that she has grown immensely. She is in a better condition—compared to point A.

The comparison she is not making is to point C, the state her missionary abilities might have been in had she not indulged in bashing. Had she taken that course, she likely would have come to the same true conclusions about the ineffectiveness of bashing and the vitality of having the Spirit when resolving concerns. But she also would likely have learned other important lessons because she wasn’t wasting time in fruitless contention.

Bible Bashing. Just because you learn a lesson from your mistakes, it doesn’t mean that it was the only way you could have learned that lesson.

Because condition B is genuinely improved over condition A, largely as a natural result of time and growth, she might mistakenly conclude that dabbling in bashing was the only way to get to the knowledge about the importance of the Spirit that she has at point B. By making the wrong comparison, she might say deceptively attractive things like, “Well, I know you’re not supposed to bash, but I think it’s a phase every missionary has to go through, before they can really understand that it just doesn’t work. In fact, I never would have learned to recognize the Spirit without that contrast.” Such a conclusion would ignore two things: that she could have come to her current knowledge and understanding through means other than ignoring Godly counsel, and that she might have attained even greater knowledge and understanding through that more obedient process.

Clarifications

There are two concerns that frequently attend any in-depth discussion of repentance. First, “Well, you’re not perfect, so you shouldn’t talk about others’ mistakes so much.” Please understand, I am including myself in every one of these principles and hypothetical scenarios. This discussion of sin and repentance embraces all fallen mortals, including me. One reason I feel so compelled to write about this is that it’s all so applicable to me.

Second, “All this focusing on what-might-have-been might make people despair.” I don’t believe despair is the only possible reaction. Ezra Taft Benson said, “Just as a man does not really desire food until he is hungry, so he does not desire the salvation of Christ until he knows why he needs Christ.”3 Pondering what might have been is one way to realize just why and how much we need Christ. One reader understandably asked, “Where does that lead us?”4 Well ideally, to gratitude for forgiveness, not to despair.

One final clarification: by using Bastiat’s comments on economics, I am not equating spiritual growth with cold, sterile income portfolios. In fact, I’ve intentionally refrained from quantifying light and truth, time, or sin; I have added no units on either axis of Elder Bateman’s chart. For example, time might be measured in seconds, months, or even choices. The message of the chart is that each point on the obedience line is higher than the previous, showing that obedience leads to growth. I use the economics analogy to encourage us to not ignore “the Unseen,” those spiritual factors that should cause us to reconsider which choices genuinely lead to spiritual growth.



Notes

1. Dallin H. Oaks, “Sins, Crimes, and Atonement, address to CES religious educators, 7 Feb. 1992, Temple Square Assembly Hall, accessed on ldsces.org.

2. Frédéric Bastiat, “What is Seen and What is Not Seen” (Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc.), first published in 1848, trans. Seymour Cain.

3. Ezra Taft Benson, “The Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants,” Ensign, May 1987, p. 83.

4. Comment by Aaron on “As Though It Never Happened.”

12
comments so far
  1. Nathan,

    A question about getting back on the track after fully recovering from sin. … I believe it was President Kimball who commented on the fact that the one who didn’t sin is always better off than the one who did.

    So, are we back on track but missed all the knowledge and benefit from Point A to Point C, and that is what makes the non-sinner better off? Or is it because time elapses and, though I may be on the right path, I am so far behind where I would have been had I not sinned? Or do I not ever regain THAT right path, just a path that is now the best I can get?

    Maybe I am not clear.

  2. I guess the way I read President Kimball, the non-sinner is better off because he didn’t put himself through unnecessary misery that adds nothing to his growth. He skipped useless pain during that time period, while the sinner passed through it.

    I meant the dip in the sin line to represent the consequences of sin. I know it can look weird to see the sin line rejoin the obedience line, like there are no consequences, but it makes more sense once you realize the point they rejoin occurs after death (look at the chart on As Though It Never Happened). So once we sin, for the rest of our mortal life, we do suffer some temporal consequences, even after we’ve fully repented. So that would be why it’s better not to sin—even though the loss will be made up, you have to endure sin’s effect for the rest of mortality.

    Do you think that matches what the prophets have said? Like, if a person is guilty of immorality and fully repents, and eons later he is in the celestial kingdom, do you think it’s safe to say that the atonement has fully restored any blessings or progress he lost through sin?

    I don’t know how well the charts get that idea across, but those are the ideas I’m trying to get across. Does that make sense? Because if not, I want to try to find a better way to illustrate them.

  3. A Seminary teacher many years ago used the following analogy, which I think fits your example fairly well:

    He started with an empty jar. To the jar he would add colorful, candy coated gum balls. These represented our good works. He would also add, from time to time, a bath oil bead. These were about the same size as the gum balls, and they also came in various beautiful colors. The bath beads represented our sins and wrong choices. The gum balls and the bath oil beads were similar, but if you bit into a bath bead your reaction would be a bit different than if you bit into a gum ball.

    Later in the lesson, the teacher removed the bath beads through the process of ‘repentance’. Then he presented his point: although the jar contained only gum balls after the bath beads were removed, the quantity of gum balls was something less than a jar full. One of the things that is lost by doing wrong then repenting, is what might have been. You may be missing out on some blessings, experiences, progression, etc. that would have put you further ahead. Your jar is not as full as it could have been. There is a loss, although as you’ve pointed out, unseen. Of course, repentance, given enough time and endurance (probably not fully realized until some time after mortality), will produce the same result, but you’re playing catch-up for a while to get to where you could have been.

  4. Yeah, that’s the idea I’m getting at. That’s a good way of putting it!

  5. Two things.

    1. Yeah, the after-death part, I think, is where the lines reconnect fully. That would make Elder Packer’s “eventually” and President Kimball’s “far better off” statements mesh well. I’ll have to show you the version of the graph that I have been using for years. It points out the loss we experience when we sin, but can put us back on the right “angle” of progression.

    2. I will use the gum ball example in seminary now. Thanks.

  6. Man, draw up the graph and scan it, or make a digital graphic of it on PowerPoint or something, and then post it here in the comments. That would be neat to compare the two. (If you have no way of putting the graphic online so your comment can display it, then email it to me and I’ll put it in our media folder so it can display in your comment.)

    I remember we talked about this once, and the main problem you saw was that once we repent, the line rises faster than the obedience line, implying we could progress faster than the Savior. (Am I remembering right?) What would you think if the sin line only returned to rising at the same rate as the obedience line, and only jumped to a steep climb after death? Would that look right to you?

  7. Nathan,

    What would you think if the sin line only returned to rising at the same rate as the obedience line, and only jumped to a steep climb after death?

    Nathan, why does death magically change the dilemma? Are we still not equally dependent on the Savior after death as during life? The fact is, if we insist on carrying a graphical representation through to all its implications, the idea that we can ever “catch up” to where we would have been had we not sinned implies that we can climb more steeply than we could have with strict obedience. I’m not at all sure how death magically resolves that.

    I think the conceptual problems illustrate the limitations of any metaphor. These graphs are a great pedagogical tool, but we shouldn’t require that they perfectly map onto reality.

  8. Speed isn’t everything; direction counts!

    I would think that none of our lines would match the slope of Jesus’ line. We would all rise at different angles. Sin definitely changes the angle downward. Repentance adjusts the angle back in a positive direction, but it may not be as steep an angle as it was before the sin (because some damage has happened), or it may be somewhat steeper than it was before the sin (as Alma presumably stepped things up after his conversion from what he ever was before). In my mind, the steepness of the slope may be anything as long as it does not approach the perfect slope of Christ (at least not during mortality).

    After death, the slope might approach Christ’s perfect slope, or maybe it continues on in the direction that we have set during our mortal life (the same spirit we have now continues on into eternity) possibly with gradual improvement over time. If Abraham has already received his exaltation, good for him! If my slope is in a positive direction, but rises more gradually so it takes me 815 billion (that’s an impressive number) years to reach a similar perfected state, I’m okay with that. At some point a line which is going in the right direction, given enough time, will reach a certain height. Maybe God is looking for us to attain a certain slope based on who we are, rather than a certain height.

    Anyway, I thank God that he can take imperfect beings and continue to work with those who are striving to keep the line ascending regardless of the setbacks they face from time to time.

  9. I hope I haven’t gotten us lost in graphing! :) I think Jeff is right that, as soon as we use this graph metaphor, there are going to be unintended meanings that aren’t part of the original point. I wonder if any apparent problems have to do with the way we conceive of time. I wonder if Heavenly Father would think, “In the eternities, all things are present. There are no ‘rates’ of growth—only life and death, growth and decay.”

    Try thinking of the Time axis as something other than uniform increments like minutes or years. Think of it, maybe, as choices. Since no two choices are alike, we can’t really calculate a “rate” of growth per choice. So a steeper slope doesn’t really imply any problems like growing at a faster rate than the Savior; it just means we regain lost ground.

  10. To discuss the economic points rather than the moral ones, wasn’t there a hardcore Keynesian somewhere who said that the best thing for the government to do during a recession was to pay people to dig holes and then fill them up again?

    This strikes me as profoundly absurd, similar to encouraging wanton consumerism without saving because it helps the GDP rise – a number that measures nothing significant. If we all filled our houses with useless, expensive trinkets and spent much of the day building the same, the economy would thrive but few would find happiness. Note that I’m sympathetic to Keynesians but think there’s enough work to do without inventing any more of it.

  11. This was a great article! Modern economists and many modern Latter Day Saints have the problem of looking just at the bright side of things at the expense of reality. If my house were burning down some blind optimist would smile and say- At least your neighbors are warm.

    Clumpy brings up some good points about Keynsian economics. They preach debt, consumption, and spending as the solutions to all economic problems. Though Clumpy did say:

    “If we all filled our houses with useless, expensive trinkets and spent much of the day building the same, the economy would thrive but few would find happiness.”

    I would put that differently. Our economy might thrive if we consume useless trinkets but it wouldn’t last long. Just like sin, the undesired consequences would come later. We can’t remain primarily consumers without long term effects. Those effects are catching up to us right now.

  12. I agree. The economy would only appear to thrive—until two weeks later when everyone’s pantry was empty and they couldn’t buy food at the store because all the farmers were now making trinkets. (By the way, your burning house example made me snicker.) :-)

    The things is, the fact that we so often make this mistaken conclusion with regards to repentance is really just a testimony of how effective the Savior is at repairing our losses. So every time I hear someone say this, while I try to correct them, I also smile inside and think, “Man, my Savior is really good at what He does!”

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