The Broken Window Fallacy And Iraq

Inexcusably, I ran into a lady a while back. She was fine, I was fine, my car insurance and her rear bumper were not. The best thing to come of it was that neither of us were seriously injured; that was the best thing.

After the police took our vitals, he comes up to me and says, “Well, the worst thing is, I’m going to have to cite you for a moving violation.” That was the worst thing. Feeling ashamed and embarrassed, I didn’t have time to explain to him the broken window fallacy, first voiced by Frédéric Bastiat. Mainly because I didn’t want to get another ticket for boring an officer of the law with economic theory.

And because he might know it better. But that’s a trifle, as I saw allusions to other “window” in the world. Right now, it would appear that the United States is hellbent on breaking as many windows as possible, only to fix them, for a fee. It would be easy to do this if a person’s opinion is that, as in my real-life example, the United States was the guilty party, wrecking the innocent other country’s metaphoric Altima.

In What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen, Bastiat lays out the example of The Broken Window:

Have you ever been witness to the fury of that solid citizen, James Goodfellow, when his incorrigible son has happened to break a pane of glass? If you have been present at this spectacle, certainly you must also have observed that the onlookers, even if there are as many as thirty of them, seem with one accord to offer the unfortunate owner the selfsame consolation: “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody some good. Such accidents keep industry going. Everybody has to make a living. What would become of the glaziers if no one ever broke a window?”

Now, this formula of condolence contains a whole theory that it is a good idea for us to expose, flagrante delicto, in this very simple case, since it is exactly the same as that which, unfortunately, underlies most of our economic institutions.

Suppose that it will cost six francs to repair the damage. If you mean that the accident gives six francs’ worth of encouragement to the aforesaid industry, I agree. I do not contest it in any way; your reasoning is correct. The glazier will come, do his job, receive six francs, congratulate himself, and bless in his heart the careless child. That is what is seen.

But if, by way of deduction, you conclude, as happens only too often, that it is good to break windows, that it helps to circulate money, that it results in encouraging industry in general, I am obliged to cry out: That will never do! Your theory stops at what is seen. It does not take account of what is not seen.

It is not seen that, since our citizen has spent six francs for one thing, he will not be able to spend them for another. It is not seen that if he had not had a windowpane to replace, he would have replaced, for example, his worn-out shoes or added another book to his library. In brief, he would have put his six francs to some use or other for which he will not now have them.

The point he was making was instead of buying shoes and bread and a Nintendo 64, he spent it on a new window. It was the breaking of something that was whole, and replacing what was there that kept the shopkeeper from moving on to other things. There is no benefit to the shopkeeper to fix his window. In the example the glass-maker is benefiting from the loss of the shoe-maker, the bread-maker, and the Electronics Boutique, circa 1998.

The detractors of the Global War on Terror have, unwittingly, been using this economic theory in their arguments that the US is completing unjust war after unjust war. Are you not surprised that the first thing that comes to mind for an invasion of Iraq was the oil we’d be able to acquire? An economic reason that should be a reason to encourage the US to invade. Yet, without really realizing they were using the broken window fallacy, they were equating the US forces with being that Pathfinder that smashed up that poor lady’s car.

There, of course, is where the mess up the story. Let’s forget a moment that I wasn’t ramming into her because she was an infidel Christian for a moment, and stick with how there was a victim, a guilty party, and enforcement of the law. Once you identify those three elements, you’ll see how you have to identify the three parties correctly, or there will be the same constantly misguided attempts to blame the wrong group for the crime.

In Iraq, you had a dictatorship that was unhealthy for it’s countrymen, a regime that would, rightly, be removed if simple merits of tyranny and despotism cause a leader to be removed. Unfortunately, despotic leaders get where they are by being good despotic leaders, and it’s rather difficult to get them all. There is no other way to look at Saddam Hussien as anything other than the one who broke the metaphorical window that is his people and his country.

(To address those of you who would put Saddam as the shopkeeper that’s truly inconsequential, as he was the one who broke the ‘window.’ Whether he owned it or not doesn’t matter, he was the one who violated the mores.)

What certain persons cannot bring themselves to believe is that the United States military, of course implying the Bush Administration, is the policeman of my broken window story. And that’s the rub, you see, and it’s the reason I brought this up in the first place. Remember what the cop said who was working with us after the accident? He said, “Well, the worst thing is, I’m going to have to cite you for a moving violation.” The words rang hollow as I knew there were higher insurance rates, a damaged truck, the lady I ran into would have to have her car in for repair…there was a whole lot of “worse things” yet to come.

So, who to blame? I have at least three choices: I could blame the lady for being in front of me, I could blame myself for going too fast (like an idiot), or I could blame the policeman for enforcing the law. Guess which one of these is going on? Well, hold on, because in my scenario, there was no camera crew, there were no agenda-driven journalists. Mostly disinterested motorists who’s interest peaked and faded the moment they finished their rubbernecking.

In all actuality, they should be concerned, because I’m taking a very small chunk of the economy that could’ve been used on other goods on fixing what I broke. Everybody’s insurance will have to take the brunt of the damage I have to pay for. In my story, I am the bad guy, and it’s obvious. President Bush doesn’t have that advantage. The window’s been broken, and somebody’s got to pay for it. The very act of having to clean up the mess is unpopular, of course, but necessary.

This is politics in the 00s. The fact that there are people empathetic to tyrants should be the easiest indicator that these people don’t have the right actors playing the correct roles. Yet, to some, the cops are the bad guys, the terrorists aren’t that bad, and the only ones who should be punished are the one who did nothing more than took too long to move at a stop light. It’s simple, the US military is punishing the terrorists who are the ones attacking the innocent citizens. To see it any other way proves that you are a person who refuses to see things logically.

Censure? Impeachment?
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