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The Seen and the Unseen

In his 1946 book Economics in One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt unfolds an interesting systems-oriented principle that we believe belongs in every red teamer’s toolkit. Often, Hazlitt tells us, the unseen is more important than the seen, even though we naturally tend to focus on the seen. Among other things, Hazlitt discusses public-works projects, which generate visible activity and tangible results. What we don’t see is the “what-might-have-beens,” the results that would have emerged had the same resources been applied differently.
      He proffers the example of a tax-funded bridge. We drive across the bridge and value its utility. What we don’t think about are the privately funded alternatives, the “things that we do not see, because, alas, they have never been permitted to come into existence. . . . the unbuilt homes, the unmade cars and washing machines, the unmade dresses and coats, perhaps the ungrown and unsold foodstuffs.”1 He argues that if we are to see these unseen possibilities we must “see in the eye of imagination”—we must, in other words, “look at the debit side of the ledger” and perceive the “indirect as well as the direct consequences.”2 Unfortunately, “To see these uncreated things requires an imagination that not many people have.”3
      Our purpose here is not to debate the value of public versus private investments, although such a debate is no doubt worthwhile; rather, our point is to underscore the merit of Hazlitt’s systems-oriented method. The ability to perceive unseen, indirect consequences—the things that “have never been permitted to come into existence”—is a skill essential to the red teamer’s art. It involves the ability not only to understand the system but also to imagine and articulate the potentials that exist within it. The red teamer who can do this is of value not just to the security arm of the enterprise but to the operations and strategy arms as well, something savvy firms are beginning to appreciate.

  1. Economics in One Lesson, 1996 printing, pp. 21–22 []
  2. Ibid., pp. 21, 23 []
  3. Ibid., p. 23 []