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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Broken Window Fallacy

Bk Marcus has a good post on Bastiat's broken window fallacy at lowercase liberty.

What-is-seen-and-what-is-unseen is a powerful way to introduce someone to the concept of opportunity costs, but in the case of the broken baker's window in Bastiat's original essay (and in the cases of World War II, the World Trade Center, typhoon-ravaged coastal cities, and now New Orleans), what should be seen is the whole and functional window as part of the wealth in the world and the destroyed window as part of the destruction of wealth.

Before the little vandal, the baker had a window and some savings. After the vandal, the baker has a new window and less savings. That means less wealth. What exactly is unseen?

What is seen, unfortunately, is the increase in nominal GDP caused by replacement of the broken glass.

Bastiat's evisceration of the broken window fallacy dovetails nicely with some of the material at the True Cost Economics site. See especially "Scrap the GDP."

The ASI and Globalization Institute blogs regularly feature enthusiastic posts about how "globalization" and "more trade" (neither one the same as free trade, by the way) lead to "economic growth" and skyrocketing GDP. But nobody in those circles stops to consider how much of the nominal GDP measures genuinely productive activity, and how much is the cost of replacing broken windows. How much of the GDP reflects activity that takes place only because it's subsidized, and the non-privileged bear the cost? How much of the GDP is made up of such externalities--the replacement of "broken windows" like cleaning up pollution, the inefficiencies of centralization and bureaucracy, or building more highways and airports to transport goods long-distance that would be more efficiently produced near the point of sale? How much of GDP reflects the monetization of activity formerly carried out within the household and barter economies, as evicted peasants work in sweatshops to earn the wages to buy the food they used to grow themselves?

Addenda. Some good stuff in the comment thread. colorless green ideas provides a link to a better index of economic output.

And Bill at Reasons to be Impossible says

the old eastern bloc regimes used to use the semi-Marxian Gross Material Product (which would have roughly equated with added labour) - when they joined the western bloc they switched over to using GDP which basically doubled their effective appearance.
Well, surprise, surprise, surprise!


Anonymous P.M.Lawrence said...

Economists are quite open about the fact that the G in GDP stands for "gross" and that you have to account for other stuff as well in drawing the right inferences for any particular question. The trouble is that policy is not determined by making objective adjustments but by stopping when the choice of adjustments gives an answer that suits the agenda.

November 02, 2005 8:26 PM  
Blogger colorless green ideas said...


has a new metric it calls the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), which attempts to correct the GDP based on the same criticisms you made. It's worth taking a look at.

November 03, 2005 1:39 AM  
Blogger Bill said...

ISTR someone telling me that the old eastern bloc regimes used to use the semi-Marxian Gross Material Product (which would have roughly equated with added labour) - when they joined the western bloc they switched over to using GDP which basically doubled their effective appearance.

ISTR one difference was treating tax twice (once when the government claimed it and again when they spent it).

November 03, 2005 2:14 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


Unfortunately, the line between "economists" and "policy-makers" is thin, when it comes to the polemicists who use rising GDPs to sell globalization.

November 03, 2005 8:15 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

Didn't Murray Rothbard propose an alternative in Power and Market to factor in government wealth destruction.

November 03, 2005 3:51 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Dunno. I don't remember it, but it's been a couple of years since I read P&M. How did it work?

November 03, 2005 4:59 PM  
Blogger freeman said...

Kevin - I thought you'd be interested to know that (surprise surprise!) Alex Singleton objects to your dismissal of the GDP. His response is over at Samizdate.

He links to an old article from Reason written by some Fed big wig who thinks that we're all living large thanks to the free enterprise system and that the GDP actually underestimates growth!

November 03, 2005 7:23 PM  
Blogger brian said...

Geez, I knew Samizdata skewed vulgar but I didn't expect the bone-headed response they gave. They seem to think accounting for broken-window spending would involve political types sorting all monetary exchanges into boxes marked "good" & "bad" for some reason.

Odd, I would've thought an attempt at bringing "lefty" issues like the environment under a strict market-rationality would be cheered. Makes you wonder what it is they really want....

November 04, 2005 12:26 PM  
Anonymous joanne said...

Yes there is less total wealth after the broken window - but the thing is in the real world "broken windows" are usually used as a means of redistributing wealth (redistribiting a smaller pie but some may still see the redistribution as beneficial).

November 04, 2005 6:26 PM  
Blogger Travis said...

What is seen in Bastiat's essay is the six francs paid to the glazier to repair the broken window. What is not seen is the six francs that would have gone to the shoemaker. Nowhere in Bastiat's essay does he imply that that money would have been saved and therefore missed by an account of nominal GDP. In fact, following Bastiat's story, nominal GDP is the same either way. Either the six francs are spent on the shoes or on the window.

And I agree that any case for globalization based on increases in GDP alone will not stand up to scrutiny, but remember that globalization just means free trade and free trade was what Bastiat's Broken Window essay was all about.

January 09, 2006 3:52 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Thanks for commenting, Travis.

I disagree that globalization=free trade. Globalization, as defended in most public discourse, is *phony* free trade, or neoliberalism. The defense of globalization, for the most part, is just another vulgar libertarian defense of the interests of global corporations, under the guise of "free market" principles.

January 10, 2006 10:04 AM  
Blogger Travis said...


I'm trying to figure out where our perspectives differ. The title of your blog is, to me, a contradiction since I understand the free market and capitalism to be the same thing. Please enlighten me about how capitalism (economic individualism) is bad and the free market is good.

January 10, 2006 9:29 PM  

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