If you any taste in good television, you no doubt are a fan of Fringe. Ignore for a moment that its a product of J.J. Abrams, a man who wrote the most dizzyingly confusing plot for a previous show, and made a 21st century reboot of a savored franchise that made me want to claw my eyes out. Instead, relish in the humanity of the characters, the fact that it’s driven by them rather than some outside happenings, and is based entirely on good, substantial writing. Also, relish in the fact that you can watch it on Hulu for free, which is what I do because I don’t have a TV. (Thus, I always get it a day later than the broadcast, but that’s something I can live with.)
In a nutshell, Fringe is the story of a super-secret division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, aka “da Feds,” who are investigating the crossover between their universe and a parallel one. This includes many grisly crimes of a “scientific nature,” ranging from Frankensteins, teleportation, genetic warfare, and just about anything that involves messing with people’s minds (including a program that, once it infects your computer, makes anyone looking at the monitor have a seizure and then melts their brain.) It’s like X-Files, in a sense, only it’s more understandable, and in my opinion, better written, with the plot being firmly driven by the characters. I could expound at length on how good the writing of Fringe is, but today, my main goal is to analyze the latest episode, “The Firefly,” and how it relates to an old dead Frenchman by the name of Frederic Bastiat.
“Who?” you’re probably saying. “Look, I’m pretty sure I know what Fringe is, but who the heck is this guy?”
Frederic Bastiat was a French economist who lived from 1801-1850, during the end of the Napoleanic Wars, the Bourbon Restoration, the July Monarchy, and the Second Republic. (If only the States went through so much political upheaval.) He was later elected to the assembly during the Second Republic, but it is not his political career that makes him famous; rather, it is his economic writings. Although The Law (La Loi) is perhaps his most famous, the one more relevant here is his essay What Is Seen and What is Not Seen.
The basic crux of Bastiat’s argument is that while we can see what is right in front of us, there are myriad more factors that come into play, but we cannot see them immediately. We only see them much farther down the road, after the action itself, and they are generally negative. No one can really predict them, although Bastiat does allow that one can possibly foresee them:
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.
I see the truth!
These are the first three paragraphs of Bastiat’s essay, getting straight to the point, instead of trying to make a lead in and then burying said point in mounds and mounds of meaningless words, as many modern columnists and writers do. (I profess to having no immunity to this disease.)
To give an example of what Bastiat is speaking of, let’s look to minimum wage laws. Many–not just economists–call for higher minimum wages, in order to better the poor. “Look at these people now!” they say. “They are so much wealthier than before! They can afford health care, food, and shelter! And they spend more, so they will better our economy!” Perhaps. This is easily the seen. But what these well-meaning but ultimately mistaken individuals fail to notice–or in some cases, just ignore–is the unseen: that, with higher labor costs, companies will hire fewer people, and thus, there will be more unemployed. So indeed, one has actually hurt the cause of the poor by putting more of them on the unemployment line. (And that certainly doesn’t better our economy.)
It’s not an easy thing for people to swallow. People like to be in control, they like to know that they understand what’s happening, and that when they set out to do something, their desired result will be the real result. It’s perfectly understandable, and its not something to really be ashamed of. (Although, in my case, cursing that my car will not go around a turn at full speed in GRID probably is something to be ashamed of.) The only bad part is that people refuse to learn from their mistakes, and thus we end up with the incalculably huge, puzzling, and nigh-intractable problems our society faces today.
Fortunately, our heroes on Fringe have the humility to learn. Well, sort of.
Note, I’m not going to worry about spoiling it, since the episode has already aired and you can easily watch it on Hulu, as I linked to it above. I’m also going to assume you know a little bit about the story behind Fringe; if you don’t, read up on Wikipedia and watch the latest five episodes (or rent a season on iTunes) in order to catch up. So here is basically what happened: when Walter returned with his son Peter, they fell in a frozen lake, but the Observer, Mr. September–who I’m assured is not F.A. “Baldy” Harper, despite my initial impressions–saved them from drowning. Unfortunately, as the Observer tells Bishop in the present, he could not have foreseen the consequences of saving a human life. Transcript excerpt taken from Fringepedia, the Fringe wiki:
OBSERVER: There are things that I know. But there are things that I do not. Various possible futures are happening simultaneously. I can tell you all of them, but I cannot tell you which one of them will come to pass. Because every action causes ripples, consequences both obvious and… unforeseen. For instance… after I pulled you and Peter from the icy lake, later that summer, Peter caught a firefly. I could not have known he would do that or that because he did a young girl three miles away would not. And so later that night, she would continue looking, trying to find another one. I could not have known that when she did not come home, her father would go out looking for her, driving in the rain, so that when the traffic light turned red, his truck skidded through the intersection at harvard yard, killing a pedestrian.
Wow. You could not have received a better form of Bastiat’s axiom for the modern audience if Bastiat himself came back to life, went to Hollywood, and wrote a screenplay about it. The seen…and the unseen, even to such a being as the Observer, whom we know is both not human and is far more powerful than one, as well as possessing some unique thought patterns; certainly, one LA Times blogger finds the Observer’s plans to be “inscrutable.” But then, realizing that LA is bankrupt appears to be “inscrutable” to the local mayor, so maybe it’s just something in the water.
Now one can’t really say that this makes Fringe a libertarian TV show. In fact, Fringe is fairly apolitical, other than the general “hey, authoritarianism and secrecy is like, bad, guys” that all shows have. And that’s okay. But I found the similarities between what the Observer was saying last Friday and what Bastiat was talking about a century and a half ago to be quite striking. (Was Frederic Bastiat visited by an Observer? I suppose we cannot rule it out.) But if you do feel a need for a concrete, libertarian connection, then you need look no further than the title of the episode. I’ll give you three guesses which libertarian show it reminds you of.