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Are Wars Good for the Economy?

Are Wars Good for the Economy? - The Broken Window Fallacy

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The Broken Window Fallacy is brilliantly illustrated in Henry Hazlitt's Economics in one Lesson. The book is still as useful today as it was when it was first published in 1946; I give it my highest recommendation. In it, Hazlitt gives the example of a vandal throwing a brick through a shopkeeper's window. The shopkeeper will have to purchase a new window from a glass shop for a sum of money, say $250. A crowd of people who see the broken window decide that the broken window may have positive benefits:
    After all, if windows were never broken, what would happen to the glass business? Then, of course, the thing is endless. The glazier will have $250 more to spend with other merchants, and these in turn will have $250 to spend with still other merchants, and so ad infinitum. The smashed window will go on providing money and employment in ever-widening circles. The logical conclusion from all this would be ... that the little hoodlum who threw the brick, far from being a public menace, was a public benefactor. (p. 23 - Hazlitt)
The crowd is correct in realizing that the local glass shop will benefit from this act of vandalism. They have not considered, however, what the shopkeeper would have spent the $250 on something else if he did not have to replace the window. He might have been saving that money for a new set of golf clubs, but since he has now spent the money, he cannot and the golf shop has lost a sale. He might have used the money to purchase new equipment for his business, or to take a vacation, or to purchase new clothing. So the glass store's gain is another store's loss, so there hasn't been a net gain in economic activity. In fact, there has been a decline in the economy:
    Instead of [the shopkeeper] having a window and $250, he now has merely a window. Or, as he was planning to buy the suit that very afternoon, instead of having both a window and a suit he must be content with the window or the suit. If we think of him as a part of the community, the community has lost a new suit that might otherwise have come into being, and is just that much poorer.
(p. 24 - Hazlitt) The Broken Window Fallacy is enduring because of the difficulty of seeing what the shopkeeper would have done. We can see the gain that goes to the glass shop. We can see the new pane of glass in the front of the store. However, we cannot see what the shopkeeper would have done with the money if he had been allowed to keep it, precisely because he wasn't allowed to keep it. We cannot see the set of golf clubs not purchased or the new suit foregone. Since the winners are easily identifiable and the losers not, it's easy to conclude that there are only winners and the economy as a whole is better off.

The faulty logic of the Broken Window Fallacy occurs all the time with arguments supporting government programs. A politician will claim that his new government program to provide winter coats to poor families has been a roaring success, because he can point to all the people who have coats who didn't have them before. It's likely that there will be several new stories on the coat program, and pictures of people wearing the coats will be on the 6 o'clock news. Since we see the benefits of the program, the politician will convince the public that his program was a huge success. Of course, what we do not see is the school lunch proposal that was never implemented to implement the coat program, or the decline in economic activity from the added taxes needed to pay for the coats.

In a real life example, scientist and environmental activist David Suzuki has often claimed that a corporation polluting a river adds to a country's GDP. If the river has become polluted, an expensive program will be required to clean up the river. Residents may choose to buy more expensive bottled water rather than cheaper tap water. Suzuki points to this new economic activity, which will raise GDP, and claim that the GDP has risen overall in the community although the quality of life surely has decreased. Dr. Suzuki, however, forgot to take into account all the decreases in GDP that will be caused by the water pollution precisely because the economic losers are far more difficult to identify than the economic winners. We do not know what the government or the taxpayers would have done with the money had they not needed to clean up the river. We know from the Broken Window Fallacy that there will be an overall decline in GDP, not a rise. One has to wonder if politicians and activists are arguing in good faith or if they realize the logical fallacies in their arguments but hope the voters will not.

Now on to the war.

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