The Blessings of Destruction
So we have finished with the broken window. An elementary fallacy. Anybody, one would think, would be able to avoid it after a few moments’ thought. Yet the broken-window fallacy, under a hundred disguises, is the most persistent in the history of economics. It is more rampant now than at any time in the past. It is solemnly reaffirmed every day by great captains of industry, by chambers of commerce, by labor union leaders, by editorial writers and newspaper columnists and radio and television commentators, by learned statisticians using the most refined techniques, by professors of economics in our best universities. In their various ways they all dilate upon the advantages of destruction.
Though some of them would disdain to say that there are net benefits in small acts of destruction, they see almost endless benefits in enormous acts of destruction. They tell us how much better off economically we all are in war than in peace. They see “miracles of production” which it requires a war to achieve. And they see a world made prosperous by an enormous “accumulated” or “backed-up” demand. In Europe, after World War II, they joyously counted the houses, the whole cities that had been leveled to the ground and that “had to be replaced.” In America they counted the houses that could not be built during the war, the nylon stockings that could not be supplied, the worn-out automobiles and tires, the obsolescent radios and refrigerators. They brought together formidable totals.
It was merely our old friend, the broken-window fallacy, in new clothing, and grown fat beyond recognition. This time it was supported by a whole bundle of related fallacies. It confused need with demand.The more war destroys, the more it impoverishes, the greater is the postwar need. Indubitably. But need is not demand. Effective economic demand requires not merely need but corresponding purchasing power. The needs of India today are incomparably greater than the needs of America. But its purchasing power, and therefore the “new business” that it can stimulate, are incomparably smaller.
But if we get past this point, there is a chance for another fallacy, and the broken-windowites usually grab it. They think of “purchasing power” merely in terms of money. Now money can be run off by the printing press. As this is being written, in fact, printing money is the world’s biggest industry—if the product is measured in monetary terms. But the more money is turned out in this way, the more the value of any given unit of money falls. This falling value can be measured in rising prices of commodities. But as most people are so firmly in the habit of thinking of their wealth and income in terms of money, they consider themselves better off as these monetary totals rise, in spite of the fact that in terms of things they may have less and buy less. Most of the “good” economic results which people at the time attributed to World War II were really owing to wartime inflation. They could have been, and were, produced just as well by an equivalent peacetime inflation. We shall come back to this money illusion later.
Now there is a half-truth in the “backed-up” demand fallacy, just as there was in the broken-window fallacy. The broken window did make more business for the glazier. The destruction of war did make more business for the producers of certain things. The destruction of houses and cities did make more business for the building and construction industries. The inability to produce automobiles, radios, and refrigerators during the war did bring about a cumulative postwar demand for those particular products.
To most people this seemed like an increase in total demand, as it partly was in terms of dollars of lower purchasing power. But what mainly took place was a diversion of demand to these particular products from others. The people of Europe built more new houses than otherwise because they had to. But when they built more houses they had just that much less manpower and productive capacity left over for everything else. When they bought houses they had just that much less purchasing power for something else. Wherever business was increased in one direction, it was (except insofar as productive energies were stimulated by a sense of want and urgency) correspondingly reduced in another.
Economics in One Lesson
Economics in One Lesson