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Longboat Key Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012 5 years ago

Our View: The 'seen' and 'unseen'


When we saw the front-page-sized view of the architect’s rendering of a redeveloped Bayfront Park, including a new 18,000-square-foot community center on the bayfront, we couldn’t help but say: “Wow. That would be great.”

It would be.

Then we had breakfast with Susan Goldfarb, the indefatigable, determined and longtime executive director, chief, cook, bottle washer and bathroom cleaner at the Longboat Key Education Center. And that reminded us one of our favorite philosopher-economist-journalists: Frenchman Frederic Bastiat.

Bastiat (1800-1850) probably is best known for his short, powerful book, “The Law,” which succinctly exposes how man has used lawmaking to turn laws from their proper purpose to an entirely contrary purpose. As he wrote, “The law [has] become the weapon of every kind of greed! Instead of checking crime, the law itself is guilty of the evils it is supposed to punish!”

Bastiat also wrote a famous essay called, “What is Seen and What Is Not Seen,” the first five paragraphs of which are excerpted in the accompanying box. They’re well worth reading, especially in the context of the renewed efforts and discussions to build a new community center at Bayfront Park.

As Bastiat points out, when we see, for example, the renderings of a redeveloped Bayfront Park, it’s easy to get excited and imagine all of the good Longboaters could and can experience. But Bastiat also notes that good economists, or in this case, smart residents, also will take into account “the effects that must be foreseen.” In other words, what will be likely unintended consequences from constructing an 18,000-square-foot community center?

“For it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa,” Bastiat wrote.

Which brings us to Goldfarb, her Longboat Key Education Center and the Longboat Key Center for the Arts.

Goldfarb is rightly concerned about the aftermath of the addition of what was described in renderings of a new community center — a 3,000-square-foot activity center; 3,000-square-foot community room; and a 2,000-square-foot exercise room. It’s one thing to build that space, it’s another to maximize its usage and make it worth the investment.

If it’s built, don’t fall prey to what so many other communities did in the 1990s. Cities all over Florida funded performing-arts centers with tax dollars, ignoring all of the future operating costs. After the centers were built, they suddenly realized they needed programs to fill the space and sources of revenue to pay for the huge, ongoing costs. And that meant hiring more city employees and creating programs.

Now foresee: What would a big, new facility mean here? If a community center is built, will that result in a new recreation department to create and provide programming to attract users — and compete with and duplicate the Longboat Key Education Center and Longboat Key Center for the Arts?

Take this a step further. Or suppose the town builds and offers Goldfarb a deal she can’t refuse to lease space in the new community center? And say she moves. Then what?

Then the Centre Shops loses one of its anchor tenants that keeps the Centre Shops active and in business. Goldfarb provides classes for 4,000 people during the three-month winter season. Take them away from the Centre Shops, and imagine what that would do to Blue Dolphin, the UPS store or Exit Art, to name a few thriving businesses. The last thing we need is another dying retail center.

Or think of what would happen if, say, the new community center starts offering art classes or art exhibitions or jazz concerts and Garden Club fashion shows? Think how that might affect the Longboat Key Center for the Arts.

In the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism, you might say “so be it.” But a taxpayer-funded community center is not capitalism.

In the context of a new Bayfront Park and community center, the “unseen” must be addressed. The Longboat Key Center for the Arts and the Longboat Key Education Center are important institutions. The former is nearly 60 years old and is deeply rooted in the sands of the island. The Education Center has operated nearly 27 years, likewise on its way to historical institutional status.

They perform important roles in making Longboat Key what it is. And they have a place here. They have earned that place. Indeed, if put to a vote whether to keep and improve these two institutions or let them fade over time to have a new Bayfront Park community center, our bet is Longboaters decisively would favor the former.

So this is one of the challenges: As the Town Commission and others discuss the possibilities for a community center at Bayfront Park, they have an obligation to look at what they can’t see.

The futures of the Longboat Key Center for the Arts and Longboat Key Education Center must be integral parts of any discussion. And likewise, if that discussion leads to ideas about about relocating and consolidating these two institutions in the same setting at Bayfront Park, what would be the “unseen” in doing that? Conversely, if they are left as they are, where they are, what would be the consequences of that?

Redeveloping Bayfront Park with a new community center is not an isolated event. It’s a big, historical decision. Don’t get blinded by what you see.

In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

Yet this difference is tremendous; for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil.

The same thing, of course, is true of health and morals. Often, the sweeter the first fruit of a habit, the more bitter are its later fruits: for example, debauchery, sloth, prodigality. When a man is impressed by the effect that is seen and has not yet learned to discern the effects that are not seen, he indulges in deplorable habits, not only through natural inclination, but deliberately.

This explains man’s necessarily painful evolution. Ignorance surrounds him at his cradle; therefore, he regulates his acts according to their first consequences, the only ones that, in his infancy, he can see. It is only after a long time that he learns to take account of the others. Two very different masters teach him this lesson: experience and foresight. Experience teaches efficaciously but brutally. It instructs us in all the effects of an act by making us feel them, and we cannot fail to learn eventually, from having been burned ourselves, that fire burns. I should prefer, in so far as possible, to replace this rude teacher with one more gentle: foresight. For that reason I shall investigate the consequences of several economic phenomena, contrasting those that are seen with those that are not seen.

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